October 9, 2005
Fruit and Spice Park Holds 500 Varieties
REDLAND, Fla. -- To the untrained eye, the thousands of trees and plants at the Fruit and Spice Park look simply like lush greenery. But don't be fooled.
The dark bushes sprouting little red beans are African "miracle fruit," which block the tongue's ability to taste sour and make fresh limes taste sweet as sugar.
And the papaya plant produces a milky sap that was once popular as meat tenderizer and now tenderizes women's faces as the active ingredient in some "natural, botanical" exfoliating skin products.
"I know this just looks like a bunch of bushes, but every one has a story," said park manager Chris Rollins.
The 35-acre garden, owned and operated by Miami-Dade County Parks, is billed as the only tropical botanical garden of its kind in the United States with more than 500 varieties of fruit, vegetables, spices, herbs and other plants.
"It provides a real opportunity for the public to see a vast array of tropical fruits that you normally wouldn't come across," said Michael Davis, a plant pathologist at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences based in nearby Homestead.
That includes coffee, cashews, olive trees, a vineyard of Muscadine grapes, a virtual forest of bamboo and a patch of papyrus, the first paper. There's also lotus flowers, a symbol of enlightenment, and the knotted, dense lignum vitae or "tree of life" - which was used to treat syphilis in Europe during the age of Christopher Columbus, though not effectively.
"It didn't really cure anything," Rollins explains, "but it was so disruptive that it distracted them for a while."
If the park has a distraction, its the 1,200-foot row of 125 varieties of mangoes. Some are as smooth as butter, others fibrous, and the flavors range from lemony to buttery.
During the summer mango season, visitors can eat the succulent ripe fruit that drops to the ground until their stomachs bulge and their hands and clothes are stained in sweet, tangy juice.
"That's how we like to have people leave," Rollins said, smiling.
In addition to telling the stories behind the plants, tour guides offer visitors a taste of nearly every edible, ripe fruit at the park, and a chance to smell the leaves of dozens of spices.
"People kind of get to sniff and munch their way through," Rollins said.
Before anyone embarks on their fruit and spice safari, they can snack from an exotic fruit tray on display at the gift shop.
On a recent summer morning, the samplings included gak, a Vietnamese vegetable that's used to make rice orange. Inside the softball-sized spiky exterior are slimy bright red globules, appropriately called "devil's guts."
The tasting tray includes several strange-looking bananas, some of the 75 varieties available at the park.
Also on the tray is jackfruit, which Rollins said is the heaviest tree-borne fruit, weighing more than 70 pounds. About the size of a watermelon, but with a spiky green shell, jackfruit sprouts out of tree trunks and tastes of banana, cantaloupe and Juicy Fruit gum.
Jackfruit, native to Asia, India and the Philippines, is so popular that the park hires uniformed security to stand by its 35 trees to prevent theft when the fruit is in season.
Today's flourishing garden is a far cry from 1992, when the park took a direct hit from Hurricane Andrew.
"Almost every other tree was lying back down on the ground," Rollins said. Of the 750 canopy trees blown over, staff and volunteers were able to prop up and save about 250, Rollins said.
But Rollins, who has managed the park since 1981, used the opportunity to reorganize.
The trees and plants had previously been scattered around the park without any order. Now the park has a master plan, with plants organized according to geographic region: Tropical America, Africa, Asia, Pacific/Australia, and Mediterranean.
He says the park draws visitors from every ethnicity, who make a beeline to plants from their native region and share stories and fruit with their family.
"The people really make it very interesting," Rollins said. "It really doubles the park."
The hurricane wasn't the only disaster at the park.
Last year, the entire citrus collection - 126 varieties - was lost to citrus canker. The trees were destroyed as part of the state's citrus canker eradication program, under which any tree within 1,900 feet of an infected tree is destroyed. Canker causes small brown lesions on fruit and threatens Florida's $9 billion citrus industry.
In late August, Hurricane Katrina swept through as a Category 1 storm, destroying 30 trees and knocking down 126 that were propped up again. But with about 2,000 trees at the park, Rollins said there was still plenty of fruit for visitors.
In addition to feeding and educating the public, the park donates cuttings for religious ceremonies and samples for research. Before the Air Force base at nearby Homestead closed, Rollins taught edible wild survival course to airmen.
Today he trains beagles to sniff out exotic fruit in the customs lines at airports - which backfired when he returned from a recent botanical expedition with new plants for the park.
"I got caught by my own beagle," Rollins said.
And the park helps to propagate their exotic plants: Anyone can collect seeds from the ground to plant at home, or the staff will help people take cuttings and give advice on how to grow them, so the plants can continue telling their stories.
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