Plants of the Conch Republic

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My first visit to Key West happened in late July, in the peak of summer. Even though we are days away from welcoming autumn, I can’t stop raving about the southernmost city of the continental USA. I did the typical touristy things like the sunset celebration on Mallory Square; I strolled down Duval Street, and even waited in line to take a group photo by the Southernmost Point (most touristy thing ever). Snorkeling and a sunset “cruise” off the coast of Key West was the weekend’s main event, a moment with friends I will remember forever. On a personal level, though, the highlights of my trip to the Conch Republic mostly belonged to its flora. In between visiting high-profile attractions and partaking in other activities, I made sure to pause and enjoy the plant life.

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If you really want to get to know a city, you need to walk its streets. That’s why I wandered about the key in a brief late afternoon garden walk, right after checking in to the guest house my friends and I were staying in. Key West is known for its relaxed way of life and I was pleased to sense it for myself on the very first day. You see it in the city’s motto (One Human Family) and flags of the Conch Republic proudly displayed everywhere. You feel it from the residents of Key West, welcoming guests from all walks of life. But the laidback lifestyle is truly personified in the private and public garden spaces visible from the streets. Each of the garden spaces were unique in one way—from its whimsical elements displaying the gardener’s personality to the use of specimen plants—but were all unified in the same types of plants used and how each garden contributes to Key West’s carefree state of mind.

 

Plants gone solo

In regards to Key West’s flora, I knew the basic stuff; like its hardiness zone number is 11 and the climate is subtropical. Chances were very possible that I would find the same types of plants I’m used to seeing in Miami. My assumption proved to be true by the following plants:

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Roystonea regia – Royal Palm: Royal Palms are just more regal in Key West. They love it here and I can’t blame them, I fell in love with Key West as well.

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Delonix regia – Royal Poinciana

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Conocarpus erectus var. sericeus – Silver Buttonwood: I didn’t find viburnums here (thank heaven!) because Silver Buttonwood is alpha shrub/hedge. Conchs (KW residents) also train them to grow as a small tree.

Ficus benghalensis – Banyan Tree: I didn’t see many live oaks in Key West but here’s a tree you can find in other parts of Florida, just not as cool as the ones in Key West.

Ficus benghalensis – Banyan Tree: I didn’t see many live oaks in Key West but here’s a tree you can find in other parts of Florida, just not as cool as the ones in Key West.

 

Plants in garden spaces

I may have admired the individual species of plants found in Key West, but I truly fell in love with how gardeners used plants collectively to make a garden a significant space.

On the second night out and about, we were on our way to Duval Street for the second act of my friend’s birthday festivities. We were all laughing and having a good time when, all of a sudden, I came across this front porch decked out with a simple gathering of plants. It wasn’t the best looking garden in Key West—which is fine, my garden is not the best looking one in Orlando—but I liked what I saw so I quickly snapped a picture for future enjoyment.

I didn’t think much about that particular garden space until I noticed a pattern with how I reacted to every garden I found in Key West. I developed an insatiable desire to sit and enjoy the scenery, and it all originated the night I first laid my eyes on the modest looking front porch off Duval Street.

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Front porch off Duval

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The garden of Hemingway House

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The lush greenery of Cypress House

Looking back, if I had more spare time to wander about Key West in search of plants to admire and if it were socially acceptable to knock on a friendly stranger’s door to politely ask for a tour of their private garden space—you know, with no fear of getting strange looks from the locals—I totally would find a way to get over my shyness and do it. There’s Airbnb and Couch Surfing for travelers, how about a social networking service for garden crashing? A social network to help link travelers in search for a unique garden with other gardeners who will be more than willing to host visitors (i.e., garden crashers) for a tour of their garden and then maybe eat key lime pies, drink margaritas, and be merry while conversing about the highs and lows of garden life. Hmmm… It’s just a thought to consider.

Key West was truly amazing and I had the time of my life down there. This is a great thing that I crossed off many items from my Conch Republic bucket list because when I go back, plants will be the center of attention. You can easily spend a full day admiring the many gardens of Key West so why not? The first half of the day would be dedicated to public gardens and green spaces. Then the other half of the day can be about visiting the gardens that belonged to famous figures/people (Little White House, Hemingway House).

Who knows? Maybe by the time I make a return visit, there’ll be a garden crashing app available to assist me with exploring a greener side of Key West that not many tourists will get to experience.

(Further Reading: Key West’s gardens benefit from climate and charm)

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