By John L. Guerra
Citizen Staff

Key West High School students, set free from the four cement walls of their regular classroom, wander under a tropical canopy, photographing orchids and bromeliads. They are in the process of cataloguing and organizing photos of the sensitive blooms for public display.

The tropical forest at Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden serves as an outdoor classroom like no other in the continental United States.

Just ask Dr. Stuart Pimm, who holds a chair at the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences at Duke University in North Carolina. He’s been bringing his masters degree students to the tropical garden for six years to impress upon not only his charges but also KWHS students the value and complexity — and necessity — of keeping tropical forests alive and well.

“You see more butterflies in this little area than in the United Kingdom,” Pimm said as he peered through binoculars along the forest walkway. “They represent just one example of how rich places like this are in different species. We have two missions here for the high school students and my students: to document all the things that happen in this forest and to teach people about diversity and its importance.”

During the weeklong research program, students worked all day and into the night in some cases as they catalogued and measured the forest’s plant inhabitants, from tall hardwoods to prickly pear and a cacophony of flowers. They measured, described, photographed and touched nearly everything under the canopy. The week culminated Friday at an afternoon reception where students displayed their findings for local school officials, friends of the tropical forest and botanical garden and the press.

KWHS students Rhonda Bacher and Stephanie Carvajal had a great time working among the Duke students Friday. They were surrounded by college students peering into their laptops or working a machine that creates signs so the public can identify plants and trees along the forest nature walk.

“We’ve been taking photographs of orchids,” Bacher said. “We are doing a poster of the orchids that can be found in the Keys. It’s really interesting how many different kinds there are. It’s fun to do, too.”

Bacher, a senior, said she can get used to working with plants and natural environs for a living. “I’ve applied for college at University of North Carolina and Johns Hopkins University,” she said. “I want to study biochemistry.”

For Carvajal, 18, photographing bromeliads (plants that latch onto and grow where rainwater collects in the arms of tree branches) allowed her to use high-quality camera equipment as she clicked the shutter on the myriad flowers in the forest and garden.

“It’s a great way to learn this, really,” she said. “I like both approaches in the classroom and outdoors in this beautiful space. I like to experience learning both ways.”

The KWHS senior also plans to continue studying the environment when she goes to college.

In addition to the Duke University research program, the tropical forest and botanical garden has been exposing school children in Monroe County to plant diversity and the richness of Keys biota at the garden for years. Dr. Suzanne Bryant, director of education for the center, and two other educators — Stephen Hodges and Nadia Adamor — design learning programs for Keys students. The pupils, from the youngest primary school students to high school seniors, combine class work with time in the tropical forest in curriculum approved by the state, Bryant said.

“We’ve brought in more than a thousand third through fifth-grade students in the past four months,” she said. “Our new goal is to introduce all 2,200 K-5 students in the Keys to see and experience the garden in an educational way.”

One such project integrated math lessons with a visit to the garden: students measured the tropical garden’s environs and worked out various formulas to produce a scale model of the garden.

“We’ve done lessons on biodiversity with the children, too. The kids come here and look for what they learned in the classroom,” Bryant said.

The lush garden with its tropical glens and verdant walkways is designed in such a way as to keep line of sight to the next turn in the walk. Tall trees are accented with broader, flowering bushes, tropical grasses, reeds and unique leaves.

The original garden was developed in 1930s by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration as a showplace for tourists. The garden fell into disrepair after World War II, but “disrepair isn’t the word for it,” Pimm said. “When we first came here six years ago, there was a rusting fence, trash, bottles, it was terrible. We had to hold our classes in the parking lot.”

Carolann Sharkey, president of the nonprofit society that raises money for the tropical forest and botanical garden, has shepherded the garden into its present form, raising awareness and enlisting volunteers and politicians in raising money for the site’s development.

The society’s goal is to develop the site into a national destination.

“We depend on so many people in the community for what you see today,” Sharkey said. “People like Dr. Pimm and his students rely on this unique place that’s like nowhere else in its diversity and research possibilities.”