The Key West Mystique

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Key West trees urban hammock

Key West trees | Welcome to the Cunningham Urban Hammock

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.


Key West trees
Myrtles of the river, stoppers and the Jamaica caper flank the pool with mango overhead (2022)

The next people to own our house are in for an uncomfortable surprise unless they’re huggers of Key West trees.

Somewhat to the consternation of our neighbors a decade ago, we clear cut the property, removing decades of crappy green stuff trying to pass itself off as landscaping. That included a couple of misshapen and sunlight deprived coconut palms growing at a 45 degree angle over the street and a couple others hanging over the neighbor’s yard.

Only the mango survived, though we knew even then its roots were merrily playing footsie with the swimming pool’s infrastructure. Still are and it’s only a matter of time before the mango wins.

That clear cutting was back in the day when the Key West Tree Commission had complete local control over what got planted and what got cut down. So, before you get too huffy about outsiders destroying the canopy, we had all the permits and we weren’t taking down anything native or endangered. More important, we had a landscape plan that exceeded the replanting criteria.Scott Montgomery’s native landscape design plan will make the next owner nuts — unless said owner loves Key West trees like we do.

There’s nothing on the property (except in pots or that incredible ixora) that isn’t native to the Keys or on the Florida protected or endangered species list. There’s not a certified tree expert in town who ethically would sign off on the removal of these trees and plants. Not a one was planted where it would be a danger to people, the house, the neighbors or the public rights of way. And, without that certification there’s not going to be a Tree Commission-approved permit. Welcome to the Cunningham Urban Hammock.

Meet our Key West trees

Over the past 10 years Ranger Ed and I have created what amounts to a hardwood hammock. We baby the buccaneer palm, because it has the worrisome fungus that is killing buccaneers across Florida. Our three-foot lignum vitae started as a seedling from a Key West friend’s backyard. The ranger and I will be dead before it outgrows its pot, but it is, indeed, a beautiful thing. The red stopper, the coonties, the myrtles of the river, the Jamaica caper, the huge shade canopy from the sabal palms, the coffees and the black thorns have created the perfect habitat for white crowned pigeons, butterflies, honey bees and more lizardy-things than we can count.

Iguanas do visit, but unless the mango is dropping fruits, they generally don’t stick around. Not much of our green stuff is appealing to them when they can eat your ornamental landscaping instead.

Key West trees bucaneer
Sabal and buccaneer canopy (2022)

We don’t irrigate even in dry season because they’re drought tolerant. They’re salt tolerant and have no trouble bending to the whims of the wind. We don’t blow leaves because we either rake or leave them to decay. We don’t manicure, so, yeah, the buccaneer can get a bit unruly over the sidewalk when its fronds dip low. They need neatening up; sort of like one’s bangs occasionally do. We trim (a lot) and we do fertilize once a year or so because we’ve got not much but oolite limestone and assorted fill for soil.

Our yard isn’t likely to be featured on a garden tour because, well, it’s just not colorfully manicured. Not much oohing-and-awing going on in this shady urban hammock. But, drifting in the pool, looking up and around? Peace.

I love trees, the canopy, the mid-story, the under-story. I am the daughter of a forester; my dad cruised timber on every road trip. It’s a miracle he didn’t run the seven of us off the road. I’m the sister of three foresters and I married one.

Lessons learned

I learned three lessons from my foresters:

  1. Right tree; right place. Remember, a tree’s roots spread as far as its canopy. Planting a poinciana next to your house in a 2700 square foot lot or smack against the sidewalk is tree abuse. There’s a lot of tree abuse around Key West, historical and current. Oh, and palm trees aren’t trees. They’re giant grass with shallow roots that don’t spread much.
  2. Trees have life spans; you need to pro-actively plant replacements.
  3. Nurture them; there’s no such thing as plant and forget.
Burr oak Rockford IL 2012
Burr oak at right; offspring left front (June 2012; Rockford IL)

We had a 300-year-old burr oak in our front yard in Illinois. Developers built around it. For 20 years, we nursed that tree as it aged into something resembling more bonsai than canopy. It dropped acorns like crazy and the squirrels loved to bury them. One took root and we spent 20 years prepping it for the day its mom died. I looked on Google Earth today. Mama is doing fine, but someone cut down the baby — and the glorious, experimental American elm, designed to resist the devastating Dutch Elm disease.

So, why should you care that I love trees? Because next week, I’m going to explain why it’s OK to cut them down and why the updated Florida law governing tree removals has a path the Tree Commission can use to head off the destruction of our Key West trees by unethical certified tree experts.

Now for my conflicts of interest disclaimer: Ranger Ed is one of the city’s tree commissioners. He’s president of the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden. He is an ISA certified tree expert. He has his own consulting business, Tree Priorities. And, unlike the Thomases of U.S. Supreme Court fame, Ranger Ed and I do talk about trees. A lot.


  1. Cheryl Houston

    Did y’all live in a Bekins truck?

    • Linda Grist Cunningham

      LOL. That truck had more square footage than our house. But, nah. The trees I referenced in the column are to the left and right of the truck.

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