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Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden Celebrates 85th Anniversary

Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden Celebrates 85th Anniversary

The beloved Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden turns 85 next year! Curious about the garden's history? Take a dive into the story of how it came to life!

After an auspicious beginning in 1936, the Botanical Garden fell victim to City and federal government administrative needs. In response to WWII, in 1945, 5.5 acres were deeded to the federal government for a war-time hospital, which in 1951 became the Monroe County General Hospital.  Additional acres were ceded to the Aqueduct Commission for water storage tanks, the Mosquito Control Board offices, and golf course expansion. Post-war neglect took its toll and by 1960 there were only 11 out of the original 55 acres left, knee-deep in weeds. 

Led by the Monroe County Audubon Society, a restoration plan was presented to the City Commission in August 1960. The Advisory Council for the restoration was composed of ten organizations. Work began in December of that year, with the clean-up of the trails and buildings, and identification and tagging of plants. The formal “reopening” of the Garden was celebrated on January 29, 1961. In January, 1962 the Key West City Commission acted to protect the vulnerable landscape by officially designating the Municipal Garden “a permanent wildlife sanctuary, botanical garden and arboretum under the city’s park system.”

For the next four years, the Garden thrived and fulfilled its role as both a tourist and local community attraction. Then in September of 1965 Hurricane Betsy, an especially erratic storm, struck. Betsy became the first hurricane in the Atlantic Basin to cause more than $1 billion in damages. The damage incurred and resulting loss of funds signaled the beginning of another period of ongoing neglect, with the Garden labeled a “weed garden” by The Miami Herald in a lead article of July 12th, 1968.    

Again, concerned individuals raised the alarm and by 1972 the Key West Garden Club signed a lease with the City of Key West to become the stewards of the Garden. Relying on Club members and volunteer groups, including the Naval Air Station Marine Guard Unit of NAS Key West, serious clearing and replanting began in May, 1973. Mary Malone, lead Club member in the restoration efforts, noted “the Club has bought about all the garden tools in Key West for the project”. [Key West Citizen July 8, 1973, pg. B1] 

With the Garden Club’s lease about to expire in 1991, planning began in 1988 with a new non-profit group to take over responsibility of the Garden stewardship.  Founding members of the Key West Botanical Garden Society, included: Samuel Chapin, Marjorie Chapin, Margaret Braisted, Betty Desbiens, Helen Hulbert, George DeCoster. 

March 1991 marks what may be considered the beginning of the current era of the Garden. With Betty Desbiens as president of the Society and her dedicated volunteers in place, a new entranceway, improved trails and possible guided garden tours were some of their first priority efforts

In the following 30 years, the Garden has seen the addition of its Visitor Center and Courtyard waterfall feature, a Boardwalk, two specifically-designed “butterfly habitat” gardens, extensive plant identification signs, a Nursery for growing and propagating native plants, the largest Cuban Palms and Cuban Chugs exhibit and the dredging and landscaping of a freshwater lens pond.

The Garden has weathered decline, neglect, hurricanes, floods, and temperature extremes, insect and plant infestations. But, in 2005 was designated as the Southernmost Trailhead of U.S. Route 1 and is an official stop on the Great Florida Birding Trail. Community events, weddings, dinners and dances have all been celebrated under the Garden’s green canopy.

In a Key West Citizen feature news article of March 4, 1990, Founder, Betty Desbiens is quoted – “You know, I have always said this is Key West’s best kept secret [the Garden] and it’s a shame more people don’t take some time to find out what’s here.” 

Add the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden to your list of things to do in Key West!

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