The Florida Keys

Discovered by Ponce De Leon on May 12, 1513, the Florida Keys proper are an elongated, arcuate chain of low-lying islands over 220 miles in length. They extend from the southeastern tip of the Florida peninsula to the Dry Tortugas and lie between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. The Keys are separated from the mainland by Biscayne Bay, Barnes Sound, Blackwater Sound and Florida Bay. Monroe County is made up of 822 islands, although only about 30 of them are actually inhabited. The western half or Everglades National Park and the southern tip of Big Cypress National Preserve are largely uninhabited. The highest point in the Keys, only 18 feet above sea level, lies on Windley Key. The Keys are islands of rock, therefore sandy beaches are not common and are mostly restricted to the Atlantic side of the larger islands.

The Florida Keys are built on top of the submerged foothills of the very old Appalachian mountains. A two-mile thick layer of limestone lies on top of these foothills, covered in the upper keys by the skeleton of an ancient coral reef, and in the lower keys by a naturally cemented limestone rock called Miami Oolite. The Keys contain the only living coral reef in the continental US; a true treat for divers and no point in the Keys is more than four miles from water.

About 70 miles (110 km) west of Key West is Dry Tortugas National Park, one of the most isolated and therefore well preserved in the world. The name derives from the fact that the small hump-shaped islands look like dry tortoise (tortuga in Spanish) shells from a distance.

The Keys are in the subtropics between 24 and 25 degrees north latitude. The climate and environment are closer to that of the Caribbean than South Florida, though unlike the Caribbean's volcanic islands, the Keys were built by plants and animals. The climate is subtropical and the Keys are the only frost-free place in Florida. Many plants grow slowly or go dormant in the dry season. Some native trees are deciduous, and drop their leaves in the winter or with spring winds.

The Keys have distinctive plant and animal species, some found nowhere else in America, as the Keys define the northern extent of their ranges. The climate also allows many imported plants to thrive. Nearly any houseplant known to commerce, and most landscape plants of the South, can thrive in the Keys climate. Some exotic species, which arrived as landscape plants now invade and threaten natural areas. Some plants that seem to define the Keys are not native, including coconut palm, bougainvillea, hibiscus, and papaya.

The well-known and very sour Key Lime (or Mexican Lime) is a naturalized species, apparently introduced from the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, where it had been previously introduced from Malaysia by Spanish explorers. The tree grows vigorously and has thorns, and produces golf-ball-size yellow fruit, which is particularly acidic (even in highly alkaline coral sand soil) and uniquely fragrant. Naturally, Key Lime pie was invented here.

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