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Old 03-30-2015, 06:40 PM
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There are a very long list of plants native to the Florida Keys with amazing or unusual properties, but here are just a few…

1. Gumbo Limbo
One of the best known trees in the Florida Keys, Gumbo Limbo are sometimes jokingly referred to as the "tourist tree" because of their red peeling bark.
Gumbo Limbo used to be the primary choice of wood for making carousel horses. It has multiple medicinal uses, including as treatment for stings and bites, to repel insects, to relieve backaches, and to treat measles. The bark is anti-bacterial.

2. Autograph Tree
As known as a Pitch Apple, this one had a tradition of being planted near house entryways. I don't know how people came to figure this out, but if you write your name on the leaves of the tree, it stays legible and will remain on the tree for months until the leaf drops. It was a popular thing in the Keys , especially in the old days when they were considered even more remote than they are today, to have all of one's visitors sign the tree before going back home, so the tree might be full of autographs of visitors throughout the year - a reminder that was necessary to manage the loneliness at times of living on a tropical island that had nothing more than ferry access and little in the way of contact with large town life.

3. Florida Silver Palm
This native palm is very useful for island life, especially in the days when shopping at a real store was something possible only after a major excursion on a series of ferries. The two-tone color of blue-green on top and silver underside make for great baskets for carrying, hats for blocking out the Keys sun, and mats for protecting one's feet from those many biting critters on the ground! To add the the uses, the dark fruit is edible!

4. Buccaneer Palm
Another palm native to the Keys, the Buccaneer is known for living on the edge, like its name sakes. It is extremely drought tolerant, extremely salt tolerant, extremely pest resistant, extremely wind tolerant, and grows extremely slowly. All the more unusual, no two Buccaneer Palms look alike! The maximum height might be anywhere from 10ft to 25ft, the trunk might be skinny or stout, the fronds could measure anywhere from 4-9 ft, and the color ranges from light green to blue-green to silver! The Buccaneer Palm is self-cleaning, meaning it sheds fronds and mess off its trunk cleanly on its own and you don't need to mess around trying to cut down dead hanging stuff, which keeps it looking neat. It's also endangered.

5. Lignum Vitae
This is another well-known Florida Keys tree. Once common in the Keys, it is now rare and endangered, due to overharvesting for the valuable wood. The tree is unusual in part because it is one of the few trees on which you will see vividly blue flowers! It’s also very slow-growing, which is why it was rather easy to nearly wipe it out. Lignum Vitae has the hardest wood of any commercially harvested tree. It is so heavy it sinks in water, and was a popular choice for vulnerable boat and machine parts prior to the invention of durable plastics. The resin can be used to treat arthritis, gout, and syphilis. In fact, Christopher Columbus picked up a nasty case of syphilis on his travels to the Americas, and brought this tree back with him to be sold as a popular remedy in Europe. The “cure” was brutal as were most “medical” treatments in Europe in that age, combining wrapping the patients tightly in plasters of the resin from head to toe, detaining them in steaming rooms for a full month while essentially starving them, all while being administered large doses of mercury! For the few who survived both the syphilis and the treatment for that duration, they did in fact emerge cured of syphilis. (They probably also came out with a nasty case of PTSD.) The tree has anti-inflammatory properties, and its name is Latin for “Wood of Life” due to its many medicinal uses.

6. Manchineel
The Manchineel tree is one of the most poisonous trees in the world, which has been both to the detriment and benefit of Keys residents. When the Spanish conquistadores first tried to steal the Florida Keys away from their native inhabitants – likely either the Calusa or the Tequesta – the Native Americans fought back by poisoning the Spaniards’ water supplies with Manchineel sap. Apparently when they captured someone who was threatening their homeland, they would tie him to a Manchineel for a slow and painful death as a warning to invaders who would find his body. In fact, although not in the Keys, Ponce de Leon was ultimately done in by a Calusa arrow poisoned with Manchineel sap on the southwest coast of Florida – he quickly set sail for Cuba, but he could not escape the poison. The small tree gets its name from the Spanish “manzanilla,” or little apple, due to its leaves and green fruit which resemble those of an apple tree. However, the Spanish refer to this tree as “arbol de la muerte” (tree of death) as a reminder of what happens if you dare to taste its supposedly sweet and delicious fruit. Even the tree’s leaves can cause painful skin reactions, so a saying developed among the Spanish that "He who sleeps under a manchineel sleeps forever." In 1910, while working on Flagler’s East Coast Railway, a construction superintendent was overtaken by a violent and sudden hurricane. The man lashed himself to a nearby tree in a desperate attempt to survive – only to find that the tree was a Manchineel. Sap from the splintered branches oozed into his open wounds. Although it was not much short of a miracle that he survived, he spent many months in a hospital afterwards recovering from the poison. In 1936, two men were placed in the hospital after leaning against a tree to urinate, and touching their “sensitive” areas with the same hands – medical descriptions of the wounds included “shredding” and “second-degree burns” (!). Even standing under the tree in the rain has resulted in blisters.

Today the Manchineel is endangered, and whenever one is located it is marked with a large red “X” or band as a warning. The tree does have medicinal properties which tribal groups were able to skillfully harness, including as a treatment for venereal disease and dropsy, as well as a diuretic. Additionally, they knew how to cure the wood for use in building. Iguanas seem to love the fruit and are often found hanging out in the branches. The root systems are also great to prevent beach erosion in hurricanes. So if you know what you’re doing, it can be a really useful ally. If, like many an unlucky sailor, you parked up near the beach and used its leaves for post-bathroom “sanitation” – well, you probably had a bad last few moments…

7. Princewood is a goodtime shrub. This member of the coffee family can be used to treat malaria, anemia, diarrhea, ringworm, hemorrhoids, and low blood pressure, among others. It is known also to produce a “strengthening tea.” The bark extract can also be used to intensify drunkenness, for those who don’t even want to remember their partying time on the islands! It has exotic-looking white flowers to stare at while you pass out.

8. Mangrove
It’s hard to talk about the Florida Keys without mentioning mangroves. They are everywhere (everywhere that hasn’t been heavily developed, that is)! We have 3 species here: red, black, and white (red grows farthest out into the water, while white is farthest inland at a few feet up onto the land). Buttonwoods are also given honorary mangrove status because they grow together with white mangroves. “Mangrove” is not actually a species, but a category of trees and shrubs that inhabit the tidal zone between land and ocean. The red mangrove is the one with stilt-like roots that sit directly in the ocean water, creating rich shelters for diverse baby sea life. Mangroves can absorb water directly through their bark, filtering out the salt with a waxy coating. The white mangrove “sweats” salt out through pores on its leaves, making them look white, hence the name. All mangroves are extremely helpful in buffering winds and waves, and preventing erosion, during hurricanes. They also absorb run-off from the land and catch trash, which helps to improve water quality. Mangroves absorb excess nutrients to maintain the appropriate balance in the water, keeping all near-shore ocean life healthy.

Mangrove has a lot of tannins which can stain the water around them reddish. Because they trap mud and seaweed in their roots, they can also stink at low tide, but mangroves are integral to nearly every ocean and shore species of animal you ever heard of! They serve as nurseries for lobsters, conchs, crabs, shrimp, oysters and mussels, as well as supports for corals and sponges, and provide nesting and feeding sites for 191 species of birds in Florida (including frigate birds, roseate spoonbills, cormorants, herons, and bald eagles)! Mangroves also house the food for many species of animal including endangered turtles and manatees, as well as for dolphins. 75% of all commercially caught local fish spent some of their lifetime in the mangroves. Mangroves are also essential to the survival of queen conchs, the symbol of the Florida Keys.

Mangroves are weird in that they have what are called “live births,” meaning their seeds germinate into baby mangrove trees while still on the parent tree, forming roots, a stem, and leaves. When it drops off the tree, it floats in the water root-end down, and can stay alive floating in the salt water for months until it finds the right spot to land and take hold. Because they’re so important to the delicate Keys ecosystem, it is illegal to cut back mangroves, remove them, or even collect the seedlings out of the water. Property owners in the Keys who want to trim the tops of mangroves for better views have to pay to have a biologist come to inspect the trees, and make a decision whether it is okay to do so or would be too harmful to the tree and surrounding ecosystem. If they say ok, they will determine how much you can trim, and then you still have to pay for a permit and someone licensed to properly trim the mangrove. People in the Keys feel strongly about preserving mangroves, so neighbors will sometimes report others who try to trim or remove mangroves without following this process. The Keys have had a great deal of success restoring the mangroves in recent years.

Mangroves are pioneers of new islands. They’re the first to settle into a sand bar in the middle of ocean water and stay put. Because their roots trap passing soil, and prevent erosion in storms, the island eventually becomes bigger and bigger, with more mangroves, and eventually, a large variety of other plants and animals, in time even creating dry land. In the Keys there are many such little mangrove islands starting out in the flats, where you can be sure to see all manner of cool tropical wildlife. Mangroves have a ton of medicinal uses and also make for great honey, but they are too valuable in Florida to be used primarily for anything other than as shoreline ecosystem stabilization.
Many tourists in the Florida Keys mistakenly avoid the mangrove-laden areas because they look more swampy and the water directly surrounding them is murky and reddish. But in fact, outside of the reef 3 miles offshore, these are the areas teeming with by far the most tropical wildlife in all of the Keys – with more diversity than nearly any other place in the US. If not for the mangroves, there would not be much to look at in the Keys.

9. Seagrass
Seagrass is pretty weird and wild, when you think about it. It’s actually not grass at all, but a flowering plant that grows and flowers completely under saltwater. Not many plants can say that, and few plants on Earth could survive constant drowning, no air, and a ton of salt. There are 7 species of seagrass in the Florida Keys, with the most common types being turtle grass, manatee grass, and shoal grass. Tourists are not fond on seagrass, and tend to dislike swimming near it. Like most things from the sea, when it washes up on shore it also has a tendency to smell. Seagrass is actually the reason the entire Upper Keys is considered less favorable, because between that and the mangroves, the near-shore water looks brown or dark rather than the brilliant turquoise the Keys are better known for just a few islands down or a half mile out into the water. Because of this, visitors call the Upper Keys “less tropical.” But that’s actually not true, one could argue that they are more tropical, given the diversity of species they provide shelter for that outside of the reef itself, few waters around the Keys can boast. Seagrass can only grow if the water is very clear, allowing plenty of sunlight to feed them. So actually, seagrass is a sign of very clean water – where it is healthiest, the water is likely to be cleanest. If seagrass grows in really deep water, that tells you that the water is very clear all the way toward the bottom. Like any plant, they take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen, which is essential to the health of ocean water. They also stabilize the ocean bottom to prevent erosion, and trap particles to keep the water clear – thus on a choppy day, the water is much more likely to remain clear over seagrass beds.

Seagrass protects species such as sea bass, snapper, grunts, as well as various crustaceans and shellfish. Animals such as manantees, urchins, conchs, and turtles eat seagrass. Dolphins and various wading and diving birds use seagrass beds and feeding grounds. If you want to find exotic marine wildlife, the seagrass beds are a prime place to check out. However, you do need to be exceptionally careful. Globally speaking, seagrass beds are being lost at the same rate as rainforest, but less is being done to save them. Seagrass is protected in the Florida Keys, and boaters who destroy local seagrass can be fined $1,000, face additional federal fines, and be responsible for restoration costs on top of that! In particular cases of boats doing excessive and careless damage, fines have added up to over $500,000 for a single offense! Boaters need to be really careful when cruising shallow waters to stay within appropriate depths, and not to attempt to motor off should they run aground. Prop scars in seagrass beds can take 10 full years to heal, and might never recover. Repeated damage to the same seagrass bed can result in total disintegration of the area because so many of the roots are exposed, and so much of the ocean bottom has been destabilized that waves can rip them right out.

Because seagrass acts as a nursery and protection to so many species of juvenile marine life, every lost acre of seagrass translates to a loss of $8,000/yr in commercial fishing profits, which adds up extremely quickly. Each single acre supports 40,000 fish, and 50 MILLION small invertebrates! In total, seagrass in Monroe County, FL, supports over $380 million in harvests for stone crab, spiny lobster, shrimp, snapper, and blue crab alone every single year. Although it will involve skilled boating, divers who enjoy the reef during the day will be astounded by seagrass beds at night, where many of the reef fish move to feed. During the daytime, one can observe nurse sharks and stingrays among the beds. People new to the Keys environment might not appreciate how great seagrass is, but it’s actually a pretty amazing and important plant.

10. Keys Jumping Cactus [aka Keys Joe-Jumper, Big Pine Key Prickly Pear] (Opuntia triacanthos)
You might not be aware that cacti grow naturally in the Keys, but in fact there are multiple species that are native here. The Keys Jumping Cactus is a rare plant with pretty yellow flowers and exceptionally long spines covering the cactus in clusters of three. The common name comes from the myth that these cacti “jump out at you” while you’re walking a trail to attack with their spiney swords. These little fighters give their all in battle – each section of cactus is only barely connected to the others, so when the deep spine punctures your foot, leg, or your dog’s paw, the entire section of cactus also ends up hanging off of the puncture site too. This is one reason the plant has become so rare, because it falls apart so easily with passersby of either a human or animal nature (or even a bad storm), and damaged specimens don’t regrow or flower well. In the prickly pear family, Keys Jumping Cactus was used by local Native Americans as a source of sustenance, and the spines were strong enough to use as sewing needles and as pins to hold leaves together for cooking.
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Old 03-31-2015, 12:27 PM
Location: Englewood, FL
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Nice! Thanks for posting.
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Old 03-31-2015, 06:48 PM
Location: Fort Myers orida
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Great information
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Old 03-31-2015, 07:36 PM
1,448 posts, read 2,359,383 times
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Glad you like! - this one took me about a week to put together. I just think so many things about the Keys are fascinating - the culture, the history, even the plants...

Hoping to put together a few more lists on some of the other living things around here, so for those who like to learn about this stuff stay tuned!
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