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Land of the little giants: Wild-dillys. Blollys. And champion trees you can wrap your hand around. Welcome to Key Largo, where less is more.

To a temperate naturalist in search of big trees, the tropical forest of Key Largo Hammocks Botanical State Park did not look promising. In fact, with short, spindly trees and a canopy that tops out at about 40 feet, it looked more like a thicket than a forest of champions. Yet, according to the National Register of Big Trees, Key Largo is a hotspot for champion trees.

The Florida Keys have more species of native trees-about 110-than any other location north of Mexico. Since most of these trees can survive only in the Florida Keys and nearby mainland, tiny Key Largo has relatively little competition, which translates to an astounding 20 national champions. In fact, only 11 states have more title holders than this area, which covers less than 30 square miles! As one who has logged thousands of miles in pursuit of the biggest trees, I felt this was something I had to see.

Fortunately, I decided to visit in February, when the chances of becoming addlebrained from the heat, anemic from the mosquito horde, or battered by a hurricane were mercifully low. Unfortunately, I didn't know a stopper from a strongback, much less a wild-dilly, myrtle-of-the-river, gumbo-limbo, blolly, or any of a host of equally strangely named trees. Also, even if I correctly matched a tree to a description and name in my field guide, I wouldn't know whether that particular specimen had champion potential or not. Fortunately, I knew someone who would.

Joseph Nemec, a park ranger at Key Largo Hammocks Botanical State Park, grew up about 5,300 miles from Key Largo, in Czechoslovakia, but he knows the native flora as well as any degree-laden botanist. After learning of AMERICAN FORESTS' Big Tree program a few years ago, he quickly located 14 new champions, all within the boundaries of his park and the adjacent Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge. This combined area has the largest tracts of subtropical West Indian hardwood hammock in the United States.

"This is my park here," said Nemec as we drove into the northern section. "No people, more trees."

Nemec parked his truck and led the way into the thickety jungle, holding a stick to catch spider webs, and warning me not to touch the Florida poisontree and mind the curved spines of the devil's claw vine. Soon we emerged from the hammock and followed its edge until Nemec stopped and pointed out what I took to be a large sapling. Standing next to it, he was eye level with the trunk's halfway point, and his hand easily encircled the tree's girth.

"This is a Florida crossopetalum," he said. "The national champion." Right, I thought, but I could see from the pride on his face that it was no joke. An ultra-featherweight at 17 points, the Florida crossopetalum is the smallest champ on Key Largo, as well as the smallest one in the entire 2002 National Register of Big Trees. In fact, it wins every smallest-of-the-biggest category with an 11-foot height, 3-foot crown, and 5-inch girth.

In the arena of champion trees, of course, Florida crossopetalums don't compete with sequoias or any other tree that is not a Florida crossopetalum. Relative bigness is especially relevant on Key Largo, where the average Big Tree is 29 feet tall with an 8-inch diameter, 14-foot crown spread, and a score of only 58 points.

Nemec showed me six other champs that weigh in under 40 points: hopbush, tallowwood, boxleaf stopper, myrtle-of-the-river, roughleaf velvetseed, and graytwig. Every time Nemec showed me a point-challenged champion, I found it hard to get enthusiastic--until he pointed to a specimen half as big and said, "Usually they are that size."

The relatively small stature of Key Largo champion trees may actually have less to do with their true growth potential than with other factors. All reside at the northern limit of their species distribution, which means growing conditions are less than optimal. Every few years they get pummeled by hurricanes. Freezing weather, though rare, can have a big impact. The hammocks of Key Largo, built on relatively young limestone deposits, have very thin, rocky soils. And no place on the island has been free from major human disturbance in recent times.

Not far from the biggest crossopetalum, Nemec showed me an impressive West Indian mahogany. It and the 278-point champion mahogany in Key West are more representative of the Florida Keys' precolonial forests than are the younger trees of today. Mahogany and other trees valued for their wood were the first to be cut, and in the early 1800s settlers cleared and burned parts of the hammocks for agriculture.

The most devastating impact came from cutting trees for firewood and charcoal. Today, most of the Keys' remaining tropical hardwood hammocks are privately owned and therefore threatened by development. Fortunately, Key Largo's protected hammocks are on their way back. While Nemec's champions are big now compared to their peers, they may have many years of growth yet to come.

Most of the Key Largo champs are not yet big enough to hide behind, but there are a few that are well above the you've-got-to-be-kidding size. The biggest is the longleaf blolly, which checks in at 103 points with a girth of more than 5 feet.

Blolly, to answer your question, is short for loblolly, an old British and nautical term for the "thick gruel" that came to Americans' minds when they saw the mud holes and swampy depressions where blolly (and loblolly pine) grows. The longleaf blolly is also called 'antwood' because its trunk provides shelter for nesting ants whose droppings fertilize the tree and allow it to grow in otherwise nutrient-poor soils.

Of similar size to the champion blolly is the largest of Nemec's nominations, the 95-point hypelate, which he and other botanists call white ironwood. Even if you're not looking for a champion, the species is rare and difficult to find.

In less than two days, Nemec guided me to every one of the 14 champions he has discovered: The 66-point orange-barked soldierwood, so named for the explosive "pop" it makes when the seeds are catapulted away from the parent tree's shade. The 64-point Bahama strongback, a stout-trunked tree with rough bark that Bahamian women use to make a tea to revive their "tired" men.

I also saw the 39-point hopbush, whose closest relatives are restricted to Australia and which recalls a time when the continents were joined. But my favorite was the modestly proportioned red stopper, which has a 19-inch girth and 23-foot height. Its peach-colored hark makes it looks like it belongs in the West Indies--but the numerous scratches on its trunk speak of northern raccoons.

Key Largo is an interesting mix of tropical plants and temperate animals. Gray squirrels, opossums, and box turtles live in a forest of guiana-plums, milkbarks, and inkwoods.

How did this happen? During the Ice Age southern Florida was cooler and had no tropical vegetation. The native tropical trees now on Key Largo arrived after the glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago. They could not have come via Mexico and the temperate gulf states. Instead, they flew in on the winds of hurricanes and in the guts of birds and thrived. These are truly big trees, despite their slim stature among their Register peers.

Uncharted wonders still remain among this forest of little giants. There are currently eight trees native to Key Largo for which the throne is empty: limber caper, white-mangrove, maidenbush, catclaw blackbead, Florida nectandra, marlberry, seven-year-apple, and mullein nightshade. Nemec believes many more contenders are waiting to be discovered in his park, even for those species with current champs.

But whether you find a champion or not, as Joseph Nemec will tell you, "If you like trees, it's paradise." And just maybe, by the end of your stay, you'll know a wild-dilly when you see one.

NOTE: Visitors to Key Largo Hammocks Botanical State Park need a special permit to search for big trees off-trail. Currently, Crocodile National Wildlife Refuge is currently off-limits to hikers.

Photojournalist Whit Bronaugh is based in Eugene, Oregon, and regularly covers the National Register of Big Trees for American Forests.
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Author:Bronaugh, Whit
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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