Key West is full of things to do, so it’s not surprising that on many visits over many years, I had never stopped at the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden.
On a bike ride on the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail, I finally visited and was charmed by the jungly paths, the butterflies, the detailed and interesting plant signage, the exhibit of makeshift boats used by Cuban rafters and especially the flotilla of turtles who gather when you play the chimes next to the pond.
It’s a modest attraction — $7 adult admission to tour 11 acres of tropical trees and plants on Stock Island. I recommend it for plant lovers, the sort of person who will be delighted to see an unusual palm specimen like the remarkable Cuban petticoat palm.
If you don’t love plants, there may be better things for you to do in Key West.
If, on the other hand, you’re the kind of person who can’t learn enough about nature’s wondrous bounty, there’s a lot to like about the serene Key West Botanical Gardens, where you’ll see plants you would otherwise encounter only on Caribbean islands.
But set your expectations correctly: The gardens are not manicured, trimmed and full of flowers; it feels more like a walk in a nature preserve.
The garden was founded 80 years ago during the Great Depression through the Federal Emergency Relief Administration as one of several efforts to boost the devastated Key West economy through tourism. (The Key West Aquarium is another example.) Some of its trees date to its founding.
Right at the parking lot, you encounter one of its sweetest features. There is a beautiful view of a fresh water pond with several different kinds of chimes displayed in front of it, each with a mallet that lets visitors play a little music. Those chimes are played when the wild turtles are fed, and so the turtles have learned to swim over when they hear them ring. We counted nine turtles during our little concert and more were joining as we strolled on.
That pond itself is an interesting feature. Fresh water is hard to come by in the Florida Keys and the garden is home to two of the last fresh water ponds in Key West. These ponds are unusual: Each is what is called a fresh water lens –a layer of fresh water that floats on top of the denser salt water that seeps up from the coral stone that forms the island.
Thanks to this fresh water, migrating birds make stops here and the Key West Botanical Garden is a good birding spot. An acre of special plantings to attract butterflies ensures that butterflies also enhance the garden. (Two dozen species have been spotted here.)
What plant lovers will like best are the excellent labels on the plants. These signs don’t just ID the plant, they tell a story, such as how the plants were used by native people, pioneers or as medicine. There is also an audio tour for cell phones.
The garden is a maze of trails, some with boardwalks and some around wetlands.
Be sure to seek out an unusual exhibit that is easy to miss – a display of the makeshift boats and rafts that have come to the Florida Keys by Cubans seeking freedom. (On the garden map, look for “Cuban Chugs.”) Here’s a YouTube video about the exhibit:
5210 College Road, Key West, FL 33040
Open daily, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (except major holidays)
Admission: Adults $7, seniors $5, children 12 and under free.
What’s near the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden
The garden is on Stock Island, an island east of Key West where livestock was once kept. It’s home to two great thing about Key West: The closest-to-Key-West campground (Boyd’s) and one my favorite restaurants, the Hogfish Bar and Grill.
Resources for planning a Florida Keys vacation:
- Mile marker guide with dozens of stops to help make the most of your drive south.
- Florida Keys wildlife: Places to see animals
- Tiki bars: Soak up the Keys atmosphere
- 12 great kayak outings in the Keys
- Top 10 pit stops on Overseas Highway
- Best Florida Keys beaches
Special things to discover in Key West
- Free things to do in Key West
- Key West on budget: Accommodations, restaurants
- Eight Key West restaurants for authentic local flavor
- Key West Butterfly Conservatory, a tranquil stop
- Audubon House, a lovely refuge in Key West
- Historic Key West Seaport
- Historic Key West Cemetery is full of stories
- Fort Zachary Taylor
- Hogfish Grill: Where Key West locals go for fresh fish
- Key West chickens