Florida Big Tree Coordinator, Mark Torok, had been kind enough to hook me up with the list of the largest trees in Monroe County, FL at my request. This list included one tree in John Pennekamp State Park, the National Co-Champion Soldierwood, a state endangered species. It boasted a crown spread of 19 feet, a height of 45 feet, and a circumference of 28 inches at breast height. According to the record, this tree was located in the state park, 100 feet east, and 30 feet south of the southwest corner of the lime grove. Fair enough...how hard can it possibly be to locate this champion?
hardwood hammock habitat and overestimated my tree scavenger abilities. I was directed to the lime grove by the friendly staff of the state park and rode my bike to the area, which was relatively close to the front entrance of the park, yet hidden from, and probably unknown by most of the park visitors. I was excited to discover that this “lime grove” was in fact a functioning grove, maintained by the park, including key limes, mangoes, avocados, guavas, and one papaya tree.
Geologically, the Florida Keys are composed of a string of exposed, slightly elevated, fossilized coral rock, a sharp, jagged formation known as Key Largo Limestone. Consequently, Key Largo pioneers actually had to use quarter sticks of dynamite to clear patches of ground; blasting holes in the thick, solid coral rock. This grove is a humble, yet very productive 2.5-acre fruit oasis and cultural resource. It holds the title as the last working Key lime grove in the Upper Florida Keys. And I had found it!! How cool!
I was so excited about the huge number of mango varieties (if I recall correctly, the signs said there were about 12 varieties in this small area), the beauty of the trees, the unique patterns in the exposed coral rock, and the mystery of this find, that I almost forgot about the Soldierwood tree. I tried my first straight-from-the-tree key lime. I found out later that ripe key limes are almost yellow. Unfortunately, the one I chose was a hard, green lime that puckered my lips, punched me in the back of the throat, but still quenched my curiosity.
As I walked through the grove to the southwest corner, I eyed some beautiful, ripe, distractingly tasty looking mangoes lying on the ground, ready to be harvested.
As I pulled myself away from the juicy mangoes calling my name, I found the southwest corner of the grove, grabbed my trusty compass and tried to count my steps to the approximate location of the co-champion tree. I was slowly picking my way through the dense underbrush, attempting to run straight lines, when I heard footsteps in the dried leaves about 100 feet from me. I froze, took inventory of my few weapons and potential escape routes from the hardwood hammock, and followed the sound of the leaves with my eyes, only to find that the resident forest ranger was taking his daily stroll to the lime grove with a large bag and a long fruit picking stick. To my dismay, I stood frozen in the forest while I watched him walk through the orchard and pick each and every beautiful, succulent ripe mango from the ground.
Following the lime grove adventure, I headed back to camp along a walking trail through the hardwood hammock. The walk was lined with coral rock obviously placed as a trail border by the rangers.
The coral rock is so shallow that trees in the forest have very shallow roots, like this one.
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