The ‘Key West Botanical Garden’ was founded and developed by the Federal emergency Relief Administration as a showplace for tourists during the depression in the 1930’s when Key West went bankrupt. Beginning with 6 acres, the garden quickly reached 55 acres. Under the direction of landscape architect Ralph Gunn, 80 species were planted. This was an experimental garden; plants from all over the world were planted to learn which would survive in this environment.
By 1939 an exhibition building and office, a potting shed, tool room and greenhouses were constructed. Flagstone walkways, stone walls and even an aviary were added to the garden’s attractiveness. There was an on-site caretaker who collected entry fees and oversaw the garden. The modern equivalent of $10 million was spent building the garden. Early attendees described the garden as beautiful and filled with flowers. We know from early records that bougainvillea climbed the walls of the buildings. The garden was a popular gathering place for large family groups.
During and after World War II, the garden underwent a period of neglect and portions of it were transferred to other government agencies. A military hospital, storage tanks for Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority, and an additional 9 holes on the golf course accounted for the largest land losses.
By 1961, the city, which owns the land, had re-purposed all but 11 acres of garden and no buildings remained. At that time the City of Key West designated the garden as a permanent wildlife sanctuary, botanical garden, and arboretum. In 2005, the Garden purchased additional land bringing the total garden acreage to its current 15.2.
The garden was restored under the care of a blue ribbon Community Advisory Council. Most local organizations and numerous community leaders had a hand in the restoration. A formal reopening was held in 1961 and many people again enjoyed the garden until it again fell into neglect.
In 1972, the Key West Garden Club assumed responsibility for the garden under contract with the City. The club launched a major restoration with assistance from several groups including the U.S. Marines, the Girl and Boy Scouts, and the Key West High School Go Green club. Brush was removed, fire ants were eradicated, paths were created and a great deal of effort went into the garden making it, again, an attractive and informative place to visit.
In 1988, the Key West Botanical Garden Society was formed. Today the organization is overseen by a volunteer Board of Directors and managed by a talented and dedicated staff.
The roots run deep for The Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden. Since 1934 this special place has changed in numerous ways, the most noticeable being the size of the garden at it’s inception and what is still protected today.
Please open this .PDF document to read a very good synopsis of our history by Walter S. Marder, AIA. He conducted his survey and research in 2006.