By ROBIN ROBINSON Key West Garden Club
The National Key Deer Refuge on No Name Key is 84,351 acres of public park land, but unlike many parks, it is devoted to wildlife first and people second. That means no bathrooms or picnic tables. Key deer roam through the 25 islands that make up this varied landscape. Kristie Killarn, park ranger with the Fish and Wildlife Service of the Department of the Interior, guided the members of the Key West Garden Club through the paths and roads of the Refuge.
The geography of this refuge changes from hardwood hammocks to pine rocklands. Differences of a few centimeters in height of the oolite limestone determine life or death changes in the landscape. Oolite limestone, which makes up the capstone of the lower Keys, holds pockets of fresh water that are generated by rain, producing a fresh water lens under the ground. The path changed from dirt to rock as we hiked into the rocklands.
This landscape is filled with poisonwood that nourishes the endangered white-crowned pigeon. Red belly woodpeckers were feeding on the dead pine trees that towered above the hardwood hammock after being killed by the saltwater inundation during Hurricane Wilma. The sounds of beaks pecking at insects echoed through the trees.
Thatch palms rustled in the wind and golden creeper, broom sedge and silver argentata palms found patches of light on the hammock floor. The understory was flanked with Pisonia, wax myrtle and Myrsine. Ending at a large water-filled quarry, The Blue Hole, that once harvested the oolite and lower down, the Key Largo limestone that lies 20 to 30 feet under the oolite. Needlefish and upside-down cassiopeia jellyfish swam near the edges of this man-made tidal pit filled with rainwater and ground saltwater that oozes through the limestone.
Shoes crunched on the sand as the group climbed over a minor fence and continued down a road built to service the limestone quarry. Wild dilly, short leafed fig, blackbead, and darling plum or red ironwood, identified by its baby-butt-shaped leaves lined the roadside Overhead the mockingbirds and red-winged black birds warbled.
Berries drooping from hanging branches were ripening one by one to keep the migrating warblers and white-crowned pigeons well fed. Blooming locust berry and Jamaica dogwood enticed the bees to create an audible hum.
The pace quickened. The hum was replaced with a high-pitched whine and the sound of slaps of humans defending themselves against the brutal attack of inch-long mosquitos.
"This is diversity central," said our ranger guide, Kristie Killarn, as she led us out of the wilderness to No Name Road and Watson Boulevard where our cars were parked.
Before leaving the key we stopped in the well-stocked Visitor's Center in the Big Pine Key Plaza for books and pamphlets about the nature of the flora and fauna in the refuge. Emphasis was put on the endangered white-crowned pigeon with a push to "Give a Smidgen for the White-Crowned Pigeon."
The Key West Garden Club welcomes volunteers to pull weeds, learn to propagate plants and play in the sandy soil at the West Martello Tower from 9 A.M. till noon on Mondays.
Key West Master Gardener Robin Robinson was a columnist for the Chicago Daily News and syndicated with Princeton Features. Her books "Plants of Paradise" and "Roots Rocks and Rain: Native Trees of the Florida Keys," can be found at the Garden Club and on Amazon.com. This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club. For more information visit www.keywestgardenclub.com.