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Gulf & Main Magazine

The Colors of Cabbage Key

May 01, 2023 02:52PM ● By Daniela Jaeger

A vivid royal poinciana in front of the Cabbage Key Inn and Restaurant. Photo by Brian Holaway

“Life is an island. People come out of the sea, cross the island, and return to the sea. But this short life is long and beautiful. In getting to know nature, man exalts the wonder and beauty of life.”
—Martiros Saryan
The botany of an island is… an island unto itself. Every plant tells a story. This is the story of the plants you can see in late spring and early summer on Cabbage Key, a 100-acre island in northern Pine Island Sound.
Pulling into the harbor at Cabbage Key in the early summer is like looking at a sea of green with a kaleidoscope of flowering plants. Yellow beach daisies line the front lawn and give way to the
magnificent reddish-orange royal poinciana tree at the top of the hill. When in bloom, this royal poinciana is an island landmark. It can be seen from the water approaching from the north or south.
The vivid colors of the royal poinciana shout out that it is summer in Florida. Also called the tarpon tree in the Florida Keys, the snook tree in Chokoloskee, and the flamboyant or flame tree
throughout the Caribbean and Mexico, the oldest documented royal poinciana in Florida was planted in 1917 by Marian Fairchild, wife of the noted botanist Dr. David Fairchild. Cabbage Key now has many royal poincianas spread throughout its acreage.
A short walk on the island reveals the striking color palette of the subtropical plant world. Just a few steps off the historic boathouse is a large frangipani tree with supple white flowers that are pleasing to the eye and nose. You will find this species in many different places around the island, some with white blooms and some wearing a more pinkish color. The flower is used to make leis in the Pacific islands. The Aztec and Mayan people held this flower in high esteem.
A short walk on the island reveals the striking color palette of the subtropical plant world.

Bougainvillea; Photo by Brian Holaway

Bougainvillea is another favorite flowering plant that can be seen around Cabbage Key. This plant was first collected outside of Rio de Janeiro by Jeanne Baret, known as the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. Disguised as a man, she joined the expedition of the French Admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville, for whom the flowering plant is named.

A plant that always intrigues is the night-blooming cereus. Many people wonder at first what it is, then are even more perplexed when they find out. It is a cactus that wraps itself around many
trees on the island including, but not limited to, cabbage palms, oak trees, strangler figs, and even the occasional buttonwood. It blooms once a year and only at night. Sometimes if you are lucky, you can glimpse this amazing flower in the early morning.

Hibiscus; Photo by Brian Holaway


Hibiscus can be found around Cabbage Key as well. This is a favorite of many people, plant lovers or not. It just has that appealing flower that people gravitate toward. Botanists debate where the
hibiscus plant was first discovered, but we do know that once it established itself in Hawaii, the people there absorbed it into their culture. No matter where the hibiscus originated, it is always a pleasure to see on Cabbage Key.
The botany of an island is in the eye of the beholder. Time spent on Cabbage Key smelling the flowers, seeing the colors, feeling the petals, stopping, pausing to take in the flora of the island will be time well spent.

Capt. Brian Holaway is a Florida Master Naturalist and has been a Southwest Florida shelling and ecotour guide since 1995. His boat charters visit the islands of Pine Island Sound, including Cayo Costa State Park, Cabbage Key, Pine Island, and North Captiva.