For the second consecutive winter, we have migrated to the Florida Keys to better survive the nasty weather you often find in New England this time of year. This winter, however, we were unsure if our roost would be ready as Hurricane Irma’s aftermath rendered many homes and businesses in the Keys ruined. Luckily our rental was repaired in time for our arrival and we have taken up residence for the next month.
Our temporary home is on the beach at the end of Lower Matecombe Key. We reside in a small but efficient unit that has been newly decorated with pictures of pelicans and other beach residents; wide brimmed hats with shells, seaweed and other beach detritus; and a painted paddle. The new leather couches are comfortable and the spray from the ocean coats our bedroom windows with an opaque beige patina that clouds our morning view of the sea.
The flora of the Keys is recovering but there is a stark difference between native species and those that have been introduced. Native plants have developed mechanisms to live and thrive in salt-rich environments. The native mangroves, palms and others have started to recover as their desiccated stems are sprouting new growth. Snapped and deformed gumbo limbo trees are sprouting new branches on their side. My landlord who mistakenly cut down his lovely Key Lime tree has discovered new shoots that have grown two feet in the short time we have been here. Native trees that were bare when we arrived are showing signs of life.
The same is not true for non native plants.
Unused to being inundated in salty water, inland plants have no mechanism to cope with salt so their skeletons stand ready for removal. They sit bare and bleached between the native palms and saw palmettos that are recovering. Piles of dead wood sit along portions of US 1 ready to be hauled away, a dark reminder of last year’s devastation.
But the tropics recover quickly. The gaps in the views created by the storm have started to fill in. Mangrove seedlings have started to take root on the beach. The coconut trees seem no worse for wear as they wave in the wind and occasionally drop a fruit or two on unsuspecting hermit crabs that are swarming on our beach. We sit and watch the sun set and moon rise enjoying our time in the warmth and the regeneration of the Keys.