vegetable, vo•cab•u•lar•y

(adj.) growing in disturbed areas, on waste ground, or among rubbish

I live on a 2×4 mile chunk of dead coral that protrudes only 18 feet above the ocean. The cost of living is exorbitant and the competition for housing is fierce- for both people and plants. Many of our most common wildflowers aren’t much different than the humans in Key West- we both put a lot of creativity and effort into living in paradise.

Between the limited space, blazing heat, minimal rainfall, hurricane winds, and salty soil, a plant has to have some special traits to succeed here.

Plumeria species – Frangipani leaf bud

The tropical ornamentals get packed up and shipped in, fed and watered, pruned and pampered by the landscapers and homeowners. The wildflowers, however, have to find their own way by ocean currents or fickle winds, on the foot of a bird or in the scat of an iguana, in the tread of a car tire or the sole of a shoe. And once they’re here, they have to survive both the natural limits of the island and the man-made barriers to success. Between the businesses, roads, and sidewalks, there’s not much space to find a home.

Boerhaavia diffusa – Red spiderling

The red spiderlings demonstrate the value of efficiency and double duty. Instead of working two jobs like many of us, however, they skip producing petals in favor of making glue-tipped colored sepals. These cover the tiny fruits and turn you and me into taxis to other parts of paradise.

Boerhavia erecta – Erect spiderling

Their pale cousins, the erect spiderlings, bear fruit that only becomes sticky when wet, increasing the chance for travel at optimal conditions. They’re a lot like our human snowbirds who visit from January to April while the weather is the most comfortable.

Portulaca oleracea – Common purslane

Like the Spanish conquistadors whose shipwrecks lie waiting on the ocean floor nearby, the gold flowers of purslane hide treasure chests filled with precious seeds. The slightest brush from a foot or a breeze spills hundreds of minuscule offspring across the pavement. When there’s no room available near their parent’s house, they roll right along the sidewalk until they find a place to stay.

Bidens alba – Spanish needles

Spanish needles have little time for vanity. They grow a tuft of leaves and shoot up naked stems topped with limp flowers that few people would be tempted to pick. Their true genius lies in their 2-pronged seeds. These stab deep into the barest patch of soil, sand, gravel, or even sun-bleached wood and quickly take root. They might not be native, but just like the rest of us who live here full-time, they’re scrappy and surprisingly cheerful.

Here in Key West, I’m as likely to wave when I see a familiar face on the street as I am to stoop and check the progress of a familiar flower. Perhaps it’s silly to love my sidewalk weeds so fiercely, but the island is small and time is precious. I walk past them everyday, so with only a few minutes over the course of a year I can watch time pass with the change of the blooms or witness an extinction in a week. They remind me that nature is never static – our view of the world depends entirely on our perspective at the moment we are observing it.

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