Sea lavender (Mallotonia gnaphalodes), or beach heliotrope or bay lavender thrives on the beaches of Boca Chita, a tiny cay at the top of the Florida Keys. This little island, along with neighboring Elliott Cay are part of the Biscayne Bay National Park, and are only accessible by private boat.

For the sea lavender that seclusion and protection has been its salvation, because this once-common seaside plant has become very rare with coastal development and habitat destruction.

The once-private island is a haven for all manner of native trees, shrubs, grasses and wildflowers. Two, huge and gnarly old buttonwood trees command attention at the center of the low island.


Rustic coral buildings, a stately “lighthouse,” and other structures can still be found from the days when the islands belonged to a wealthy industrialist.

In mid-February the beaches also were covered with hundreds of brilliant blue Portuguese man-o-war that make swimming a risky choice. Long, stinging tentacles are strewn out beyond the inflated blue “sails” of the creatures. Also on the beaches are small, brilliant purple-blue snails that sport inflated sacs though clear ones of their own. The snails prey on the man-o-war. Go snails!