The Key West Mystique

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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

Atala butterfy

Rare Atala butterfly | Species thrives at Key West botanical garden

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.


I spent a chunk of time Tuesday morning rooting around in the sprawling coonties in my yard hunting for the rare Atala butterfly. Alas and alack. Nary a one.

Stood to reason I might find the Atala. After all, I’m close to a source colony and my landscaping is filled with the Atalas’ preferred breakfast, lunch and dinner. Just days before and 3.3 miles to the east, the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden on Stock Island had boasted — with justification, I might add — that its coonties were filled with chrysalises and the just-emerging, rare Atalas.

Let’s back up a minute so you’ll know why this is smashing news.

First, what’s a coontie?

The coontie (pronounced coon-tee) is an ancient cycad. It’s a Florida seed plant and the only cycad native to the United States. Cycads around the world are in decline (climate change, destruction of habitat, the usual litany). They are often mistaken for ferns or palms, but have no real kinship to either.

The coontie is a hardy sucker and delights in the challenges of South Florida and Keys weather. Drought? No problem. Salt? Bring on the salt winds, but don’t drown me. Shade or sun? Who cares as long as I’m living the tropical life. Care, soil and feeding? Crikey. Leave me alone. I’m happy in crushed coral and busted-up sidewalk and don’t need fertilizer. Give me a year or two to get settled in and I don’t need watering either. For heaven’s sake, don’t prune me. I’m laid back and slow-growing. It’ll take me at least five years to get to my full height of about three feet. I am the house guest of your dreams.

Well, except I will kill you.

Key West Island News

The rare and endangered Florida Keys Atala butterfly loves the coonties at the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden. Photo by Ranger Ed Cunningham | January 2024.

The rare Atala butterfly loves coonties

Every part of the coontie is poisonous. Still, the Florida Timucuan and Calusa peoples figured out how to remove the toxins, a tortuous and precise process, assuming one was disinclined to kill off family members. The Seminoles eventually converted the tuberous roots to a flour for bread. The name coontie comes from the Seminole phrase “conti hateka,” which roughly translates to “white bread.”

By the 1880s, settlers were setting up mills in Miami to convert the starch, and by 1911 coontie root was known as Florida arrowroot. One mill produced 18 tons a day for the military during WW I.

Development shoved coonties onto the endangered list and with them the Atala, the only living creature that can chomp on coonties and thrive.

Which brings us to the Atala. Pronounce that ah-TAH-la. Not AT-A-LA. Thank you. We all deserve to have our monikers said correctly.

Atalas love coonties. Atalas are on the rare-to-extinct list in Florida because, well, no coonties. At least no coonties-in-the-wild until botanical gardens began to plant and protect them — and residential and commercial landscapers went gaga over their sturdy, delightful possibilities.

The Atala, which had been limited to the southern tip of Florida and the Keys, was thought to be extinct between the 1930s and 1961, when a colony was found near Miami. As climate change warms the environment farther north, colonies of Atala are migrating up the Florida peninsula — as long as they can find their beloved coonties.

Atalas are tiny things. At their largest they are barely 1.75 inches from wingtip to wingtip. They are black with iridescent “scales” (green for the boys, blue for the girls). Both have blue spots and a tummy-tucker of brilliant red-orange. They’ll complete as many as three generations annually.

That brings me back to my yard, Ranger Ed and the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden.

Ranger Ed, who is president of the botanical garden board, came home from a meeting on Stock Island all aflutter (couldn’t resist) with a dozen pictures of Atalas, chrysalises and coonties. Write something up, he asked, cuz this is really cool.

How could I tell him no? He’s right. It is cool. And now I’m going back out to search for Atalas in the coonties in my yard. You can find them at the garden.

Rare Atala butterfly

My front-yard coonties were barely a foot high when they were planted in 2012.

Key West Island News

And here are my sidewalk-side coonties in 2024. Surely the Atalas would like to call this home.

Susie Ruetling | Fun facts and a history of coontie flour

Susie has probably forgotten more than most of us will ever know about things that grow in Florida and the Keys. She shared these two great pieces from her research on coonties. Enjoy the flipbooks (easiest to read in fullscreen mode). And thanks, Susie!


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