Recommended Hotel: Truman Hotel
Ben bravely posed for me next to the largest poisonwood tree in the nation. The mottled bark had dark, wet patches from which the oils literally oozed. This is one tree you do not want to hug. Oddly, humans are the only species affected by the poisonwood oils. For birds, such as the rare white- crowned pigeon, poisonwood berries are an important and abundant source of food.
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The next tree Ben pointed out was the island’s namesake: the lignumvitae, “wood of life.” Although it is small, it can live to be very old. The spreading, sinuous shape of the tree reminded me of a carefully tended bonsai in a Japanese garden. In April, blue flowers open, and the pollinated flowers eventually produce yellow, papery fruits that open to reveal bright- red berries. Ben obviously had a soft spot in his heart for these colorful trees. He would point out every one we passed: “There’s one… there’s another one… this one’s a beauty… I’m worried about this one… this is one of my favorites.” When we came to a lignumvitae tree that was dropping its ripe berries on the trail, he collected the berries and cast them into places where any seeds that sprouted wouldn’t be trampled.
In their wisdom, the Florida State Parks have made a management decision to maintain all vegetation in as natural a condition as possible. So I’ll never tell them there’s a ranger out there who lovingly moves seeds out of harm’s way, pulls aggressive species away from rare ones, and tucks fallen orchids back up into the trees.
Recommended Hotel: Marina Del Mar Resort
We walked along through the sparse shade from the small trees, dry leaves crunching under our feet, as Ben pointed out some of the other tree species. The largest and easiest to identify were the gumbo limbos. In an article from 1896, Frank Cushing called them “the most fantastic of trees the trees par excellence…bare, skinny, livid, monstrous, and crooked of limb, and, compared with surrounding growth, gigantic.” In contemporary times people have started calling them “tourist trees” because they are as red as a tourists’ sunburned skin, and the thin bark peels off like dead skin.
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Recommended Hotel: Tranquility Bay Resort
Beneath the peeling red layer, fresh green bark is visible. The leaves looked much like the poisonwood to me, but at least I could tell their barks apart. Ethnobotanists say the natives used gumbo limbo bark and leaves as a remedy for the poisonwood rash. Ben said he hadn’t tried that yet; so far he had only used calamine lotion.
Where To Stay In The Florida Panhandle
Recommended Hotel: Amara Cay Resort
Big Pine Key
Recommended Hotel: The Barnacle B&B
Little Torch Key
Florida Map Tourist Attractions