The Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden will mark its 85th anniversary with a community event in February 2021. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

After an auspicious beginning in 1936, the Botanical Garden fell victim to the city of Key West’s and the federal government’s administrative needs. In response to World War II, in 1945, 5.5 acres were deeded to the federal government for a wartime 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 only 11 of the original 55 acres remained and were 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 10 organizations. Work began in December of that year, with the cleanup of the trails and buildings, and identification and tagging of plants. The formal “reopening” of the garden was celebrated on Jan. 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 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 neglect, with the garden labeled a “weed garden” by the Miami Herald in a 1968 article. 

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. 

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. 

March 1991 marked 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 priorities. 

The next 30 years saw the addition of the 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, as well as insect and plant infestations. But, in 2005 it was designated as the Southernmost Trailhead of U.S. 1 and is an official stop on the Great Florida Birding Trail. Community events, weddings, dinners and dances have all been celebrated under its green canopy.