Home Page
Order Books
Featured Plants
Seasonal Advice
News Columns
Other Work

Book Signings and Lectures
by Monica Brandies


Would you like to be notified of new books or website updates?
Join our Mailing List.
It is completely confidential and voluntary. You may Subscribe or Unsubscribe at any time.



The Keys between the Storms

Russ's bus stop promises an interesting garden from the roadside, if it is only a peek inside the gate.

We were driving back from the Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key when I saw a bench sitting out by the road with an attractive planting of palms around it.

"Can I stop and get a picture of that?" I asked. In earlier days I would never have dared, but husbands can mellow nicely. David turned around and parked on the side of the road.

I am a firm believer in benches by the road or street for passersby to rest. This is a garden trend for which there seems to be much reluctance on both sides. I had a bench by the street for years and never saw anyone sit on it. Maybe it is time to try again.

While I was taking the photo, I saw a man just inside the gate, introduced and explained myself and learned that this bench was put out for his children to use while waiting for the school bus. "The school has a map that now includes 'Russ's bus stop', but the kids are grown past it. If anyone else uses it, I don't see them," said Russ Reams.

"I have a palm that is fairly rare," he said. I motioned for David to join us, but he waved me on.

The buccaneer palm or sargent's palm, Pseudophoenix sargentii, is an extremely rare and valuable palm for beachside or other difficult places.

As I expected, the whole property was interesting. The buccaneer palm or sargent's palm, Pseudophoenix sargentii, is an extremely rare and valuable palm for beachside or other difficult places. It grows slowly. This one was just now putting out its first fruit fronds of decorative round berries, not yet red, in tight clusters. Older trees have a dark gray trunk, swollen at the base, with a short, blue-green crown. The best part is it only gets 10 to 15 feet tall. It is native to the Keys and the Caribbean. We could probably grow it here in containers with winter protection. Only a few are found in the wild in Key woodlands and forest edges in sun to part shade.

He also has a very small pond in which he had three kinds of fish including a large tilapia, a banyan tree near the gate, a mango, figs and papayas. His vegetable garden is fenced to keep out both deer and iguanas. It wasn't planted yet, but he had started tomato seeds and will soon plant cauliflower, beans, maybe even corn.

Many of the trees on the Keys had dead leaves hanging from some of the limbs. "That came more from Dennis and Katrina than from Rita," said local landscaper Bruce Murkey. The trees will soon leaf out again. Hurricanes seem to do much of the pruning in the Keys, and residents seem to worry less about the storms.

Most of the gardens are small and a great many properties are on canals, so they must be careful to use only salt tolerant plants, but there still an amazing range of plant material. About half of the plants are much the same as what we have here. Plumbagos bloomed with clouds of blue flowers. Bougainvilleas were just starting their long winter bloom. Cannas, impatiens, periwinkles, and celosias were colorful in annual beds. Mandevillas bloomed on fences and hibiscus on tall shrubs. Orchid trees seemed to have come through the storms well, but they were not blooming yet.

Traveler's tree is a very striking plant but does not really point to any certain point of the compass.

There are many more palms than we have. Coconut palms drop much fruit and Sue Murkey had been all ready to harvest a crop of dates from one of their date palms, but the storms blew the fruit away. Since I did not have to worry about pruning any of these palms, I enjoyed seeing them.

One of the most striking plants was the traveler's tree or traveler's palm, Ravenala madagascariensis, actually not a palm but a cousin of the bird-of-Paradise family. It has huge, banana-like leaves in a fan shape, each reaching to the base of the plant. The leaves are easily shredded by the wind, and they are in a very flat plane on each plant, giving them a very striking architectural presence. But Dr. Watkins in his book Florida Landscape Plants says, "There is no truth in the oft-heard idea that the foliage fan must face a certain point of the compass." In the photo, the plant around the corner is facing another direction. They can get 30 ft. tall and 25 ft. wide in south Florida, but the biggest one I've seen was in the Streit garden in Brandon. They are only supposedly hardy to Zone 10A, but they will grow here in protected places, as along the south wall of a building. They can be propagated by seeds or suckers. Most local nurseries may have to order them. Plant in full sun; small plant in pots can take some shade.

As Wilma passes, we are waiting to hear from our newfound friends in the Keys and hoping they have survived with not too much damage.


This banyan tree in Russ Reams yard is smaller than one he lost to Hurricane George several years ago. Our area is usually considered too cold for these, but there is one in a restaurant garden in St. Pete and a huge one at Cypress gardens.