Remember trying out for a club or sports team and then waiting to find out to see if you made the team? Well right now I feel like I'm on the other side as the coach, as I am figuring out which plants we want to select for inclusion in our Gardens when the opportunity presents itself. Meanwhile, the plants no doubt wait in anxious anticipation of a decision. Coaches have to be sure they select the best talent available but also a diversity of talent so that their team is strong in as many areas as possible. Understandably, there's a pretty big group of plants vying for a spot on Kona Kai's team; it's tough to beat the beautiful waterfront views, quiet atmosphere, tropical temperatures and, of course, the very best TLC from our grounds manager, Veronika. Sadly, there will be many plants that will not make the cut - I can be extremely selective, choosing only the finest from the fields, nursery fields, that is.
My first criterion for selection is: the plant needs to be able to not only tolerate, but do well in our climate and environment with minimal care. Secondly, the plant needs to be ethnobotanically interesting. If a plant meets both of those criteria, it goes on a list. From this list, Florida natives, especially those that are endangered, get priority in my book. This is because planting natives makes sense in terms of having plants that are best-adapted to our environment and giving visitors as much of a Florida Keys experience as possible, while also enhancing native wildlife value in our collections by providing flowers for native pollinators and fruits for native birds and other wildlife. Selecting endangered species helps in ex-situ conservation (conservation outside of natural habitat) of these plants. There are, however, very interesting plants native to other regions of the world that do well in our climate, and I won't exclude them simply because they are not Keys natives. To get to the next stage of selection, it also doesn't hurt to have attractive features, such as flowers or fruits.
After the plants are all given priority based on the above criteria, I then ask: What are the most ethnobotanically interesting plants? What niches, both ethnobotanical and horticultural, do we already have filled and which do we want to fill? Which plant will work best in a site we have open, given the soil type, amount of exposure to sunlight, etc.? A few plants will likely remain as good candidates for a specific opening after all criteria have been considered and questions asked. A decision is then made by Joe, Veronika and I as to which plant we select, after which we hold an official "Kona Kai Draft" event, welcome the chosen plants to the stage with much cheering and applause from the audience, then outfit them with Kona Kai hats and jerseys while a veritable fireworks display issues forth from the flash bulbs of the multitudinous press. Now you're probably thinking, "Wow! Ethnobotany sure is underrated...I had no idea it was so exciting and glamourous!" and you're absolutely right.
I'll leave you with a couple photos of our latest superstar, a fine specimen of Jacquinia keyensis (joewood), which is a small native tree that has been planted by our waterfront. It has beautiful flowers and its poisonous fruits have been added to bodies of water by indigenous peoples to catch fish.