Key West tree hugging: We don’t do magnolias, folks

With a wry grin and a big swoop of arms urban forestry manager Karen DeMaria calls herself a tree hugger Key West style.

“So, I’m out there one day,” she tells the gathered group of Key West Garden Club members, “with my arms all wrapped around one of those huge poincianas and I notice a couple of tourists out the corner of my eye. ”

Key West tree hugger, she explained. Pretty sure the tourists thought she was part of the local ambiance.

DeMaria does, indeed, hug trees. She’s measuring circumference so she can multiply by Pi and figure out the value of Key West’s trees. DeMaria is the city’s keeper of the canopy.

It’s a title fraught with conflicts and results not apparent for years.

Before we move on, put a picture of Key West in your brain. Swaying palms and blood red, towering Poinciana trees. Colorful hibiscus and bougainvillea.  Pretty, huh? Now think deadly coconut cannonballs and roots that’ll lift your foundation a couple feet out of the sand. Think homesick mainlanders pining for, well, pines and azaleas and rhododendrons, not to mention a sturdy oak.

Southern Living landscaping doesn’t fare all that well in the sub-tropics. We need trees and plants that are drought tolerate, that adore salt water, appreciate sun, humidity and withering heat, that don’t mind sandy, coral-laced soil with nary a nutrient to be found without some serious searching.

And, those aren’t exactly lovely for landscaping, nor are they cheap. One doesn’t usually pick up a deal on sabal or buccaneer palms at the local big box nursery. Even the ubiquitous coconut palm isn’t native to Key West, though there are thousands planted around the island. That cute, 15-foot coconut palm turns into a 50-foot, bomb throwing monster along about hurricane season — unless one climbs the sucker and cuts out the coconuts.

I know. I’ve got a couple of coconuts that have to be climbed at least once a year to the tune of several hundred dollars. I am steadily replacing the ornamental, non-native stuff leftover from previous owners with native palms, shrubs and flowers. They’re thriving — without spending a fortune in water, fertilizer and gardeners.

Key West, like most cities, layers in dozens of rules and regulations about what can and can’t be planted where and when — and requires a permit for just about everything from planting to removal and replacement. That junk tree at the corner of my yard would have disappeared on a Saturday afternoon up north. Today it sports a green ribbon and a Tree Commission permit. It’s coming down to be replaced by something on the commission’s approved list.

That’s where DeMaria’s job gets dicey. She’s the one who shows up at your house or business, wraps her arms around your tree and explains the too-often convoluted, time consuming, frustrating and darned expensive task of abiding by the Tree Commission’s rule book.

Tree commissions are woven into the warp and woof of almost every scenic city and town. Most of us rarely muck with our trees and plants so we don’t routinely run afoul of the rulebook. But in Key West managing the landscaping is a full-time job. Things grow really fast and that cute plant seemingly overnight became a monster bush impeding folks along the sidewalk or hanging over the neighbor’s roof.

“We get landscapers from the mainland who recommend magnolias and live oaks,” said DiMaria. “We don’t do magnolias in Key West — much less live oaks But they, and many homeowners, don’t understand that.”

DiMaria’s only been in this job for a couple years. She’s updating the rules and regs; she’s taking stock of what’s growing, what’s not and what’s at risk. She’s out there wrapping her arms around trees and multiplying by Pi. Just because it grows nicely in central, even south, Florida, says DiMaria, doesn’t means it’s a good fit for Key West.

Libertarians would argue that one ought to be free to landscape as one pleases, tree commission bedeviled. Personally, I’m glad DiMaria is out there hugging and multiplying. She’s keeping the canopy and a couple decades from now, we’ll be darn glad she did.





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