Key Lime tree planting initiative takes root in Key West

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Local David Sloan brandishes a free Key lime seed packet. Key lime seed packets available at www.keylime.com. DAVID SLOAN/Contributed

When was the last time you plucked a Key lime off your backyard tree for a fresh pie (or a G&T)? Can you remember? 

Local tastemaker David Sloan, author of “The Key West Key Lime Pie Cookbook,” is on a mission to repopulate the land of the Lower Keys with real Key limes. Many recipes that call for Key limes either rely on their cousin, the Persian lime, or the “Key limes” imported from Mexico (more on that later). Sloan rocketed into the national spotlight earlier this month as a Key lime advocate on “CBS This Morning,” refuting the claim that the first recipe for the dessert was recorded at Borden Dairy in New York. 

“Let New York have the pizza,” Sloan told correspondent Nancy Giles. “Give us Key lime pie!” 

Sloan says the first recipe can be traced to the kitchen at the Curry Mansion Inn. But pies aside, the Key limes themselves would have traveled to the Keys before making their way to New York. Jeff Stotts, Keys-based botanist and fruit expert, takes the tale further back: “The lime that we call the ‘Key lime’ would normally have been called a ‘Mexican lime.’ Through the Spanish empire, we acquired this lime. But it’s actually native to China/Southeast Asia.” 

So Key limes came to Key West via Asia by way of Spain, but where on earth did they go? 

“I talked to so many people who lost their trees in Irma,” Sloan said, “The two biggest enemies of the trees I know of are saltwater intrusion during the storms, and the other is development. Someone builds, and they don’t want the tree in their yard.” Stotts agrees: “Let’s not rule out the damage hurricanes do — they hurt the trees, they split the wood.” Yet Stotts lists other factors: stress on the trees from mistreatment, fungus, harmful lawn products, a citrus canker, and a citrus greening disease in effect now. 

Local green thumb Caroline Cash shows off her sprouting Key lime seeds. CONTRIBUTED

“But the main killer of the Key limes was gentrification,” he said. “That sounds like a Bob Dylan song.”

So it’s us, fellow citizens, who have stamped out our namesake fruit. 

“There’s no reason that in 20 years, every pie can’t be made with local limes,” Sloan said. That’s where Steve Tarpin, the other half of this Johnny Appleseed initiative, comes into play. He’s a Key lime pie-maker based out of … wait for it … Red Hook, N.Y. Tarpin moved from his native Miami years ago and started making Key lime pies in a small Brooklyn studio. He squeezes fresh limes for his pies, sourced from Mexico (which are shipped too young and green rather than at their peak, yellow, ripeness), which is the most reliable source available. Tarpin has been a co-sponsor of the Key Lime Festival with Sloan. He said, “David was asking me about prices and sources to make pies in Key West. I said he’d be better off sourcing local Key limes.” Sloan told him that limes were nearly impossible to source locally — the trees were all but gone. 

There’s a Chinese proverb that says, “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is today.” —David Sloan 

Tarpin said, “I’ve got the seeds.” 

Sloan said, “I’m passionate about the history of Key lime pie, and Steve’s a real purist. He probably makes one of the best Key lime pies in the world.” Tarpin demurs, “Any self-respecting native South Floridian should know how to make a decent Key lime pie.” 

The two have teamed up for the “One Seed at a Time” initiative. Tarpin is shipping his seeds to anyone in the Keys who wants a free packet (there’s a link to growing instructions on his site). Sloan is the man on the ground, enlisting help from folks like chef and rum distiller Paul Menta, who has agreed to be at the front line of the lime revolution, starting a grove in his yard. “We want to keep advancing the program, and we really want community involvement,” said Sloan, who plans to approach the City Commission to consider unused city space for Key lime groves.  

“We have a goal of having every Key lime pie made in the Keys produced with local, fresh picked Key limes by 2040.” Free seeds and growing instructions are now available to any Monroe County resident at Smokin’ Tuna Saloon’s gift shop or The Key West Firehouse Museum, or by visiting www.keylime.com.

 

A Brief History Lesson in Key limes with Jeff Stotts, Botanist: 

“Famously, British soldiers used limes so they didn’t get scurvy, and that’s what introduced lime to the Anglican world. But the Spanish already knew about it, which is why they didn’t suffer from scurvy,” said Stotts. “Mexico became the agricultural center of the Spanish empire. At the time, Bahamian and Cuban émigrés were colonizing Key West. So, they knew that they had a lime that could grow in coral and rock on an island.” Some of the old Bahamian and Cuban practices have modern value: “The trees were managed by dumping water on your citrus or promoting good soil by composting. That type of horticultural practice came to Key West.” The Bahamian immigrants used Key lime juice as a preservative and means of killing germs. “When you look on labels today and see ascorbic acid,” said Stotts, “you can trace that back to lime juice.” 

 

Fruit Facts: 

  • Citrus are temperate fruits, rather than tropical fruits, but Key limes are a tropical variety, native to Southeast Asia, arriving in the Keys by way of Mexico. 
  • Key lime trees don’t need a lot of care, but “don’t like a lot of neglect,” according to Stotts. 
  • Citrus grows well in sand, not mulch. Their root system needs to breathe. Home Depot sells garden sand (beach sand has too much salt). 
  • Plant trees in places with good drainage and high elevation so there isn’t salt water inundation.  
  • Look out for imposters! Said Tarpin, “Look out for truth in packaging. If it says “Key West lime juice,” it’s just (Persian) lime juice that’s bottled in Key West.” 
  • The more popular citrus in South Florida for many years wasn’t the Key lime, it was the sour orange. They were more prevalent, but then because of the pies, Key limes became more important. 

— Pro tip: juice your Key limes and put the juice in ice cube trays. Drop into water (regular, sweetened, or sparkling) for an easy glass of limeade.  

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