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A Garden That Visitors Can Eat Their Way Through

At the Fruit and Spice Park near Homestead, Fla., you can get your fill, literally, of tropical plants, and even take some home.

November 06, 2005|Coralie Carlson | Associated Press Writer

REDLAND, Fla. — To the untrained eye, the thousands of trees and plants at the Fruit and Spice Park may look simply like any lush greenery.

But those berries on the dark bushes are African "Miracle Fruit," which block the tongue's ability to taste sour -- making limes taste as sweet as sugar.

And the tall Sapodilla tree bleeds white sap that was the source of the first chewing gum.

The milky juice from the papaya plant is popular as a meat tenderizer and is the active ingredient in some exfoliating skin products.

"I know this just looks like a bunch of bushes, but every one has a story," park manager Chris Rollins said.

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. It has 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 J. Davis, a plant pathologist at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, based in nearby Homestead.

Specimens include coffee, cashews, olive trees, a vineyard of Muscadine grapes, a veritable forest of bamboo and a patch of papyrus. There are 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.

"It didn't really cure anything," Rollins said, "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.

In the summer, during 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 with a smile.

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 visitors embark on a fruit and spice safari, they can snack from an exotic fruit tray on display at the gift shop.

On a recent summer morning, the samples 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 included several strange-looking bananas, some of the 75 varieties available at the park.

Also on the tray was jackfruit, which Rollins said is the heaviest tree-borne fruit: Some weigh more than 70 pounds. About the size of a large watermelon but with a knobbly, green shell, jackfruit sprouts out of tree trunks and tastes of banana, cantaloupe and pineapple. Some people compare it to Juicy Fruit gum.

Jackfruit, native to Asia and the Philippines, is so popular that the park hires uniformed security guards 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.

But Rollins, who has managed the park since 1981, used the damage as an opportunity to reorganize.

The trees and plants had 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 park helps to propagate its exotic plants: Anyone can collect seeds from the ground to plant at home, or the staff will help visitors take cuttings and give advice on how to grow them.

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 deliberately destroyed under the state's citrus canker eradication program, which called for any tree within 1,900 feet of an infected tree to be culled. Canker causes small brown lesions on fruit and is a threat to 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, which 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 Homestead closed, Rollins taught airmen how to survive in the wild on edible plants.

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.

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