Florida Keys News
Sunday, October 20, 2013
Mistaken tree removal in cemetery pains a local family

It didn't take long for the city to break Linda Bruce Carter's heart.

All a misguided work crew had to do was butcher the indigenous tropical hardwood tree that graced her family's plot at Key West Cemetery.

By 10:30 a.m. Thursday, the deed was done.

Three lignum vitae trees were mistakenly chopped down by a public works crew sent in to spruce up the cemetery in advance of the 10-day Fantasy Fest tourist blow-out.

City Hall acknowledged the mistake immediately after a furiously emotional Carter went looking for answers as to why her ancestors' gravesite is now bordered by a stump instead of the lignum vitae tree that had been a gift from a family friend.

"Tears, I was in tears," said Carter, 68, a Conch whose family spans seven generations on the island. "And fury. All I got was a relayed apology."

The chopped lignum vitae had been a gift from the Papy family to Carter's mother.

"Miss Fran Ford planted that tree in 1994," said Carter. "She took jugs of water to water it. They'll never be able to fix it."

Lignum vitae, which means "tree of life" in Latin, is not only indigenous but an endangered species. It's one of 94 tree types protected by city ordinance and watched over by the appointed Tree Commission.

The community services department, one of the divisions overseen by Director of Community Services Greg Veliz, had a crew that typically trims tree limbs and fauna that creep onto the city's rights-of-way working in the cemetery last week.

"It was absolutely an error," said city spokeswoman Alyson Crean. "It's unfortunate, but we have worked with the families. We're replacing the trees. They are replaceable."

Crean said city staff felt terrible about the error.

"It's a small town," Crean said. "Everybody feels so badly about the hurt these families were caused."

City crews may trim trees and shrubs across the cemetery but a permit is needed to remove a lignum vitae.

Key West will find equivalent lignum vitaes to replace the three lost trees, said Crean.

At Bayshore Landscape Nursery on Ramrod Key Friday, a one-gallon lignum vitae was selling for $22.40 while a three-gallon tree cost $49.50.

"We have young ones, ones that are a couple to a few years old," said David Montagano, who's owned Bayshore nursery for 24 years. "When you get upstairs of 15 years it's a pretty expensive plant. They are slow growing and to mature it would take quite a lengthy time."

Mature lignum vitae trees could range from $200 to $1,000, said Montagano.

On eBay Friday, a 15-year-old lignum vitae was going for $400 from an unidentified grower who listed an address as "The Florida Keys."

Montagano said the trees had been out of the trade for awhile but are available.

They're certainly Florida Keys-type stock, and the Keys have an island named for the lignum vitae.

"They grow in the harshest of conditions alongside the shoreline and they're salt tolerant," said Montagano.

Russell Brittain, the cemetery's sexton, learned of the tree slashing when an angry Carter found him on Thursday morning at the historic burial ground.

"I only had four or five of those," said Brittain. "Those are very exotic trees, very expensive. The wood is very valuable."

Carter's family pays a private contractor to maintain their cemetery plot, which includes Carter's parents, Betty and Toby Bruce.

"The cemetery staff does not trim trees unless we have permission," said Brittain. "We have never trimmed the tree on someone's lot unless the lot was unattended and in disrepair."

The tree-chopping mistake prompted Carter to reflect on her family's history and devotion to Key West.

She lives in her great-grandfather's home on Southard Street, and was born next door at Porter Hospital, now long gone.

"The cemetery is just another neighborhood," said Carter, who raised two children here and has a stepdaughter who's also a Conch. "You have little ground and houses and it's your family. They're still with us; they're just in a new neighborhood. These are people who lived here their whole lives and struggled to stay here."

Betty Bruce started the history department at the Key West Library and later ran it and she and her husband knew Ernest Hemingway.

The couple was generous in life and death.

They offered to share the family burial plot with their friends who wanted to stay on the island for good, said Carter. So the couple is buried next to the Bruces.

"They're still having their cocktail parties," Carter said, smiling.


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