One of my favorite parts of working at Kona Kai is giving tours to our guests. Since guests must request to join the tour (we won't force you), there must be some initial interest, but as the tour progresses I observe a noticeable increase in guests' enthusiasm and interest. They want to know more about each plant and find it fascinating how useful and potentially useful plants have been and continue to be. Guests have been very responsive not only to ethnobotanical information but also purely botanical observations, which is great to see. For example, I might point out that in some species, there are male and female plants, whereas in others, both male and female reproductive parts are on the same plant. Sometimes our guests have simply not looked thoroughly enough and I can show them interesting things in unusual places, such as elegant Zamia (coontie) cones, which are often hidden underneath their foliage. After a recent tour, one of the participants told me that during the time he had already spent at Kona Kai, he had walked the property looking at the plants but had not really "seen" at all. He thanked me for the experience the tour gave him, which he said added much deeper levels to his experience of our property and changed the way he perceived plants and the natural world as a whole. Kona Kai is an excellent place for realizations and revelations like this to occur because many guests are able to distance themselves from much of the "noise" of the outside world and, whether they know it or not, become more in-tune with the nature that surrounds them here. It feels as though your body, mind and soul are all resonating in perfect harmony with your surroundings at the end of a week of deep relaxation and decompression here. You find yourself noticing things you hadn't noticed before about our natural world, such as the fact that each breath we take is made possible by plants. The more you experience nature in this way, the more you are impacted profoundly and feel that deep, resonant connection with something much bigger than yourself, something that you realize lives and dies to support and sustain us in so many ways.
...for the plants that is. Veronika and I have taken the past couple of days to fertilize all the plants on the grounds, using a number of different nutrient mixtures tailored to different groups of plants such as palms, grasses and banana plants. Although we don't often think of plants needing to eat, they certainly do need to, just in a way different than we are used to thinking about it. Plants use sunlight to make their own core sustenance but they also need other supplemental nutrients from their surroundings (usually from the soil) to keep them healthy. This is similar to humans needing to eat more than just sugar or white bread to live healthily. The Keys are predominantly coral stone bedrock with a thin layer of largely nutrient-poor soil, which makes it difficult to grow healthy plants, especially plants not native to the Keys, without adding rich soil and fertilizing. In addition to general fertilizing, we responded to any special nutrient deficiencies plants on the grounds were showing. It is convenient that plants will almost always show a certain type of stress in their above-ground vegetation that can help us diagnose what the plant needs before it is too late. For instance, it is likely a Thrinax is experiencing a potassium deficiency if leaves develop many light-yellow spots, so if we found this (as shown below on one of our Thrinax), we applied a potassium mix.
Unfortunately, diagnosis is not always easy and different nutrient deficiencies can look similar. Additional complications arise with plants that are picky about the amounts of nutrients they need. Hibiscus is a good example; too much nitrogen and the leaves will turn brown or "burn," yet too little and the plants will do poorly. Hibiscus is also interesting because it is often grown for its flowers, yet it does not tolerate phosphorus in levels anywhere near what is found in most bloom-enhancing fertilizer mixes. Absorption of nutrients is also dependent upon the concentration of other nutrients/ions/compounds in the soil or water. For instance, iron absorption is often inhibited by high levels of calcium in the soil or water.
Like humans, some plants make do with whatever food you give them or can live with very little, but others have much bigger appetites or specific "eating" requirements that are more difficult to accommodate, like Hibiscus. It's a little scary, but I can imagine people in the near future picking up vitamin packs much like our fertilizer packs as their main source of nutrition because of convenience and not having to eat "healthy" foods that many people would quickly do without if they could, although I personally think they are quite tasty. We really aren't that far off with people I've seen eating a donut for breakfast, but making it a "healthy" and "complete" breakfast by taking multi-vitamins with it. Yikes.
We had been trying to decide where we would plant about seventeen specimens of Zamia (commonly known as coontie or Florida arrowroot) we received from Montgomery Botanical Center (MBC) in Coral Gables. These plants were all germinated from seeds collected from wild populations throughout the state of Florida. We wanted to do something special with them and finally decided to make them part of our center courtyard, in which we hope to plant only Florida natives from now on. I arranged the plants in two beds bisected by a sidewalk in an approximate N-S-E-W pattern based on MBC collection data. Ronnie helped with plant placement and Veronika and I set about planting after mixing in some rich soil with the relatively nutrient-poor sand/coral stone soil already in the beds. The project took the better part of a day to complete and the results are fantastic, even though this is a very young planting we hope will fill out quickly to form a lush ground cover under our buccaneer palm in the north bed and thatch palm in the south bed. Below is an "in-progress" photo of the south bed and a "finished" photo of the north bed:
After our work, it was great to see some of our guests do double-takes and offer compliments after leaving what looked like two bleak desert war zones in the morning and returning in the evening to find two well-manicured gardens that seemed to have magically appeared in their place. Already the Zamia seem to fit in very naturally and beautifully with the lush tropical landscape on the grounds and they will become a great additional topic of conversation for our tours.
Whilst walking about my neighborhood in Islamorada I happened upon a man taking down coconuts from a small coconut tree in someone's yard with a pruning saw. He was commenting on how they looked pretty much perfect for harvesting. Noticing that these coconuts were still mostly green, I assumed that he was hoping to extract the sweet water inside (I had learned about this after doing a report early in college on the uses of the coconut palm, though I had never tasted the water myself). I struck up a conversation and sure enough, he had recently been introduced to coconut water and was now collecting the green fruits for their water whenever he had the opportunity. He even had a coconut tapping tool from Australia that allowed him to easily make a small hole in the shell through which one can either drink directly or insert a straw and enjoy...how wonderfully tropical is that!? It turned out that these folks were actually friends of Veronika's (our grounds manager at Kona Kai), so they invited me in and offered me a generous helping of coconut water, which I thoroughly enjoyed, especially chilled. Coconut water is quite healthy (high in potassium) and safe to drink (it has been used safely many times as an intravenous hydration fluid when prepared IV solutions have not been available, such as in impoverished countries or during war). A market in America for coconut water as a health/sports drink seems to be developing rapidly and it is sold in 11oz. containers for about $2 each. That's funny to me because people in the Keys will pay you to take coconuts off their trees because of their potential danger to pedestrians/cars/delicate understory plants, etc. and the clutter they cause in nicely-manicured yards (you can't mow them over very well). Hmmm....Kona Kai Resort, Gallery, Botanic Gardens and Coconut Cabana???