The Fruit and Spice Park: Exotic Educational Facility in South Florida

By: Sarah Elder

ADD TO FAVORITES
How about a little snot apple? Trust us. It's good.

Homestead – On a bright Saturday morning in South Florida, sweat dribbled down the sides of Curtis Mangham's face as he marched with a six-inch knife in his right hand. Mangham stopped at a tuft of tall grass, gathered a bunch in his hand and slashed the plant with one swoosh. He rubbed the foliage between his fingers and passed it to his guests.

"This will keep the bugs away," Mangham said. "It's citronella."

This is Miami-Dade County's Fruit and Spice Park, 35 miles south of Miami in Homestead and home to 500 varieties of fruits, vegetables, trees, spices and herbs.

Residents can taste spices from India and the fruits of Southeast Asia. If a South Floridian were inclined to take on a new plant in their backyard, the Fruit and Spice Park is where they can go to see how much horticulture potential there is in the soil.

"The idea is even though they have a lot of outside Florida things, it's a good representation of what you can grow in Florida," said Betsy Karipis, 60, a Miami-resident. She took the trolley tour  with Mangham, smelled the herbs and learned that loofah is an overgrown, dried-up zucchini.

Mangham has worked at the park for 37 years. He plants most of the exotic species, such as the jackfruit which is indigenous to Southeast Asia.

"The biggest jackfruit we picked this year was 80 pounds. The makers at Wrigley went to Indonesia and tried jackfruit, so when they came back they tried to duplicate it, (they) came up with Juicy Fruit gum," Mangham said.

Every day at 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m., visitors are welcome to see Florida's second largest bamboo collection. Or the African sausage tree, which is pollinated by bats in its natural habitat. Workers pollinate the tree here.

Mangham drove around the park in a white tram stopping to pull fruits and leaves from the trees for samples.

"Try this and I will tell you what we call it after," Mangham said as he opened what looked like a yellow apple dotted with horns.

The white meat of the fruit slid down visitors' fingers. It is the Rollinia, also known as snot apple, a tasty fruit from Southern China with a not-so-tempting moniker.

Not all the plants grown at the Fruit and Spice Park are meant for eating. Wild pineapple, armed with spikes, provides a natural home security when planted beneath windows. An entire section is fenced off for poisonous plants, such as white oleander. Though commonly used in landscaping, the plant is known to irritate skin.

Mary Heinlein, the daughter of sub-tropical farmers, founded the 37-acre property in 1959. An allspice tree was the first to take root, and for years the park focused on growing fruits and flora native to South Florida.

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew caused such extensive damage that park officials decided to enlarge the collection beyond continental lines.

In the Mediterranean section, for instance, pomegranates grow and 150 varieties of mango give off a sweet aroma in the midday heat.

The director of the park, Chris Rollins, credits every thriving garden with diversity: "The more mixed up your garden is and inter-planted your garden is, the better and healthier your garden will be."

Director since 1981, Rollins is a tall man with a handlebar moustache and a beard. This particular morning, Rollins was teaching a vegetable class covering soil preparation, irrigation and harvesting.

Rollins learned about garden maintenance through trial and error: "There aren't any clear answers. People that give you definitive answers probably don't know all the options."

As an educational facility, the park is partnered with the Tropical Fruit and Vegetable Society of the Redland, South Dade Garden Club and Redland Evening Herb Society.

In addition to educational lessons on horticulture and hosting guest speakers, the foundations assist with planning annual events such as the Blues, Brews and Barbeque festival in April or the Redland Summer Fruit Festival in January. Up to 10,000 visitors attend.

"We can't survive without our foundations," said Brian Cullen, manager and chef of the Mango Café. Modeled after the historic Bauer-Mitchell Neil house, the café uses ingredients from the park to prepare dishes.

Park volunteers are writing a cookbook to release by the holiday season. Being local growers themselves, many volunteers invent dishes with produce from their own gardens such as pickled green bananas, pineapple bread pudding and mango bread.

Maryellen Cox Lopez, president of the Tropical Fruit and Vegetable Society of the Redland, and her husband Michael Lopez have been volunteers handling park operations since they retired in 2008.

Beginning more than 30 years ago, Michael Lopez, 70, would come to the park, sit on a bench and mill through his workload instead of staying in the office.

"For me, it's a sense of pride to be a part of," he said. "This is a shining star in the Miami-Dade park system."


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