ISLAMORADA—Hop a shuttle boat to a pair of islands frozen in history: Lignumvitae and Indian keys, about 78 miles north of Key West. Both state parks are treasures of Florida natural history and political intrigue.
The past is all that's frozen on Lignumvitae. The man who invented the dye for bluejeans, William Matheson, built a house here in 1919, but he almost never stayed in it. The place was too hot and mosquito-infested.
"On a summer day, if you even make it as far as the woods, they'll cover you by the thousands. You have no idea," state park ranger Victor Zuclich said when I visited in December. There were no mosquitoes that day, but heat enough to send sweat rolling down Zuclich's forehead as he led a tour of the Matheson House.
All that occupy 280-acre Lignumvitae are the house and a virgin West Indian hardwood forest such as once covered most of Florida's Upper Keys. The house includes what Zuclich calls "the mosquito-losing room" up front, where they kept a smoky fire burning to discourage bugs from entering the dwelling, and a stock of palm fronds to knock them off as you came in.
But what visitors really come to see are the woods, which you may enter only with a ranger guide. That's a good idea: Forget big spiders, which we saw, or snakes, which we thankfully didn't. In this woods, it's the trees that will get you.
Poisonwood, a dominant species, is five times more potent than poison ivy. On rainy days, visitors are banned from the hammock because even the runoff from leaves is toxic.
Other species include the mastic (its berries can bind your mouth shut), Jamaica dogwood (drop its leaves in a pond and fish float to the surface) and the gumbo limbo, called the "instant tree," because if you cut a root into pieces and plant them, sprouts emerge and grow quickly. Floridians used to plant them for fence posts. The rare lignum vitae, which gives the island its name, is so dense that it resists decay.
Nearby, 11-acre Indian Key in the 1830s was the seat of Dade County (now dominated by Miami), thanks to the island's one-time owner, Jacob Housman, a wrecker who made a fortune salvaging ships wrecked on the Keys' reefs.
After fleeing a feud with Key West wreckers, Housman developed Indian Key into a prosperous fiefdom. It thrived until 1840, when an attack by Seminole Indians destroyed most of the settlement. Today, rangers lead tours of the remaining foundations and pathways, overgrown with agave, prickly pear, sweet acacia and other exotics imported in Housman's day.