The Florida Keys: Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park
By: Jeff Klinkenberg
Let’s get this out of the way: What is a Lignum vitae?
It’s a small but spectacular tree that grows in the American tropics. It boasts spectacular blossoms. Lignum vitae – “the wood of life” in Latin -- is among the densest and heaviest woods on earth. In San Francisco, structures built with Lignum vitae wood imported from the tropics survived the 1906 earthquake. At 79 pounds per cubic foot, Lignum vitae is so heavy it sinks.
In North America, the best place to see the special tree is at Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park in the Florida Keys. It’s a 300-acre island about a mile from U.S. 1 near Mile Marker 78.5. You’ll need a boat, your own or one rented from Robbie’s Boat Rentals, a sense of adventure and maybe some mosquito repellent.
Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park is a place of wonders, dense with endangered plants, protected insects and birds. Try to imagine the Florida Keys before civilization. Before air conditioning. Before mosquito control. Get the picture?
The best time to visit is winter, though some of us even go in summer when the overwhelmingly wild island is guarded by a gazillion salt marsh mosquitoes, which don’t normally transmit disease but plenty of misery if you wear shorts, T-shirt and flip flops. If you see a guy wearing jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, boots, a hat and mosquito netting in the dead of heat season it might be me.
The park is open Friday through Sunday with guided trips available. Joey Roberts is my guide. He’s 28, a third-generation Keys boy who grew up fishing and diving and snorkeling and watching the clouds. Eventually, he was smitten by the tropical plants here, some found nowhere else on the continent.
In many places in the Keys, the old hardwood tropical forests are gone. They’re tennis courts and beach bars and marinas now. But old Florida survives on Lignumvitae Key.
“Here,’’ ranger Joey tells me. “We’re going to walk into the past.’’
And that’s what we do except we take a golf cart because Joey needs to patrol the whole island every day.
He shows me a gumbo limbo, a tropical tree you’ll find elsewhere in South Florida. It’s known as the “tourist tree” because the bark peels. But here, Joey shows me the largest gumbo limbo I have ever seen, I don’t know, 50 or 60 feet tall, with bark as wrinkled and peeling as the ancient mariner.
We see a Lignum vitae tree, of course, and Joey shows me a photograph he took the other day of a glorious lavender flower.
“Know what this is?’’ he asks a moment later.
I knew I should have brought one of Roger Hammer’s nature guides of Keys plants. But I didn’t and I can’t identify the plant.
“This is a black ironwood.’’
For some people a tree is a tree. But not to me. Black ironwood has the reputation of being the densest, heaviest wood on earth, weighing 87 pounds per cubic foot. I couldn’t be more thrilled seeing the Ark of the Covenant.
Moving on we see mahogany and pond apple. We see red, black and white mangrove. We see poisonwood, red stopper and torchwood. We see zebra longwing and purple winged butterflies and the webs of enormous orb-weaver spiders that block paths. A white-crown pigeon, another protected species, flits over the tree tops.
Of course, the dominant species we notice is the salt marsh mosquitoes. They whine. They form clouds. They look for exposed flesh. They find nothing but mosquito netting when they land on me.
Did the old-timers enjoy the convenience of mosquito netting? Some did. William Matheson, anyway. A wealthy Miami chemist, he bought the island in 1919 and built a fine house from coral and various hardwoods. In the jungle are the skeletons of old machinery. Many hurricanes tried to blow down Matheson’s house, but it still stands in defiance. It serves as the park’s visitor center.
Before Matheson, grizzled folks sailed to the Keys from the Bahamas and grew fruit trees. They built fires and sat in the smoke to avoid the mosquitoes some called “the swamp angels.’’
The earliest residents were the extinct native people we know as Calusa, fierce hunter-fishers who traveled long distances in sea-going canoes. They greeted the first Europeans with poison-tipped arrows.
The Calusa buried their dead on Lignumvitae Key. The gravesites are protected and hidden deep in the inhospitable mangroves. The Calusa built an impossibly beautiful wall by neatly stacking coral and rock – no mortar, mind you -- for a mile. The wall crosses the island.
What were they trying to keep out? Or keep in?
“We don’t know,’’ Ranger Joey tells me. “It’s a mystery.’’
It’s why I love Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park. In the 21st century, when we can answer almost any question by googling on our iPhones, mystery makes the world a more interesting place.
When you go…
77200 Overseas Hwy, Islamorada, Fla., 33036
Photos by Peter W. Cross for VISIT FLORIDA, except where noted