Keys Homes
Sunday, April 21, 2013
A tour takes gardeners to Lignum Vitae and Indian Keys

By JANE TIEDEMAN Key West garden Club

Champion trees make Lignum Vitae and Indian Key a must see."

It was advertised as a "three hour tour" but unlike Gilligan, the 27 members of the Key West Garden Club who recently embarked on a tour returned as scheduled. The tour was of Indian Key and Lignumvitae Key both which can be accessed from shore around the 78.5 mile marker of US 1 in Robbie's Marina.

Indian Key Historic State Park lies about a mile to the south of the highway and Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park is to the north of the highway. Both are accessible only by boat, either private or commercial. The history of these islands and their inhabitants is fascinating and quite colorful, but it is the botanical attributes that captured the attention of the Garden Club tour participants as they experienced an up close and personal encounter with some very unique and very old Florida Keys native plants.

The chilly, windy weather of this February morning did not dampen the enthusiasm of the tour members as they boarded the chartered catamaran. First stop on the tour was the 11-acre Indian Key. There are no original structures left on this once thriving, populated island that boasted a post office, a hotel, cottages, a store, a warehouse, and even a bowling alley. Now there are only foundations and visitors to this island walk on well-maintained pathways with streets signs and markers denoting the location of the structures of the past. This island survived because of the wrecking business that was so profitable during the 1800s. Although no structures remain, plants brought either by inhabitants, birds or the weather conditions continue to thrive. Most notably the prickly pear cactus and the agave which some call the century plant.

Dr. Henry Perrine brought the Agave sisatana, commonly known as sisal, to the island. He propagated this sisal to make the tough rope or lines that were an important commodity to the shipping and boating trade. The island is covered with the plant. The prickly pear cactus is also prolific on the island and the group learned about the scale insect that lives on the cactus. The exoskeleton of this insect produces a cochineal dye used for food coloring and cosmetics. Its highly prized red color makes natural rouge.

Next stop was Lignumvitae Key. William J. Matheson purchased the key in 1919. He built a home on the island that is now the park's visitor center. While there is a young Lignumvitae tree, probably 30 years old, that greets visitors near the steps to the Matheson House, a park ranger must guide you through the thick hardwood hammock on foot trails to see the past champion Lignumvitae and the present home to six national champion trees, one emeritus national champion, and three Florida challenger trees according to the Florida Forest Service website. However, the current national champion Lignumvitae is located in Key West on private property. The size of many of the Lignumvitae trees found on the island is striking but it is the age of the trees that seems beyond comprehension. The park ranger pointed out a Lignumvitae that is estimated to be at least 1,500 years old and several others not much younger.

In addition to the interest in its namesake tree, this island with its hardwood hammocks also boasts of the fact that it has the highest point in the Keys, 19 feet above sea level. Thus, this Key has some soil on the surface of the coral rock and provides for the lush growth we observed. The trees still must be able to adapt. The group saw gumbo-limbo trees with their roots growing horizontally across the surface as an example of a survival characteristic and how the aggressive strangler fig wins the battle for survival by strangling its hosts until it dies.

An awesome example of a champion tree is on the expansive lawn leading to the Matheson House on Lignumvitae Key. It is not only a national champion, it is the largest national champion in the state of Florida. It is a shortleaf fig (Ficus citrifolia) and it is big! It measures 444 feet in circumference, stands 48 feet tall, and has a crown spread of 76 feet. The subtropics of Florida and the Florida Keys have now boosted Florida to being the state with the most national champion trees.

As our tour came to a close, the sun broke through the overcast sky and we returned to the marina all safe and sound. It was an informative and highly recommended tour. The Key West Garden Club members share a common interest in the botanical specimens of the Florida Keys and are always ready to expand their knowledge and experiences. The Garden Club's own garden is located at the West Martello site in Key West and is home to many native plants including some potentially future state or national championship trees.


The Key West Garden Club has its Spring Luncheon at Square One from 11:30 to 1 PM, Sunday May 5, from 11:30 a.m. to 1p.m. Tickets ($30) are available at the Garden Club or from Donna Froelich, 294-5136.

Jane Tiedeman is former full-time resident of the Keys and now a part time resident who enjoys volunteering in propagation at the Key West Garden Club and participating in Garden Club activities to learn more about plants unique to the Keys. This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club. For more information visit

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