Paving the way
While browsing the web one evening, I came across a tropical tree list the Broward Rare Fruit Council had put up for one of their upcoming tree sales. Some interesting plants were on the list and hell, there may even have been mangosteen seedlings as well. I saw a contact number for an Erik Labrum. I had no idea who this dude was or if he’d even speak to me. But I called him out of the blue, told him who I was and what I was looking for. He told me that they do not ship plants. Doh! Not the response I was looking for.
But we did chat for quite a while and I could tell he felt sorry for this poor schmuck desperate to see cool plants and eat tasty fruit. He asked if I have ever heard of Bill Whitman. I had no idea who the man was. Erik gave me a lengthy bio and I determined the man must be something if he had fruited mangosteen in the US. One thing led to another and Erik invited me to join a tour to Whitman’s home that he was putting together. Oh hell yeah!! Erik told me to make sure that we also visit the Fairchild Kampong, Fairchild Gardens, and Fruit & Spice Park. No idea what they were, but they sounded promising.
Then we stopped at the Whitman Pavilion. Sure enough…it was donated and named after Bill Whitman himself. The man must really be something I thought. I was giddy with excitement. The pavilion, or greenhouse, was enormous and packed full of rare, tropical fruit trees. Could I have a greenhouse like this someday? Right!
Here I am in front of the mangosteens. I do not believe these were fruiting at the time. We did get to sample some lemon drop mangosteens which I thought were pretty good. After finding out it was an actual relative of the mangosteen, I kept some seeds. A slow start to my love of the garcinias/rheedias, and more rare fruits.
This was our first exposure to miracle fruit too. One of the Fairchild guys came out and handed us a couple of lime wedges to eat. Hell man, I know what a lime tastes like and didn’t feel like getting all puckered up. He insisted that my wife and I taste one. He wanted to make sure we understood that these truly were just limes. He next had us eat a tiny red berry. Not bad but not anything spectacular and certainly not much too it…mostly skin wrapped around a seed. We were then offered up another lime wedge. WTF?! No effing way! Incredible lime flavor…and sweet! It was like you had dipped the lime wedge in sugar. Even my wife wanted me to plant these seeds! These little surprises were just a mere tip of the tropical fruit ice burg I had yet to discover.
On top of this, there wasn’t a soul around. No one to answer burning questions. No one to point out what to look at or explain a freaking thing. We felt like if we so much as touched a fruit on the ground, let alone in a tree, armed men would jump out of the weeds and pummel the shit out of us. Very little seemed marked and if it was, we couldn’t see it. Bored and disgruntled, I didn’t even feel like taking pictures. We gladly cut this visit pretty short. I would have liked to have gone back to the office and asked for our money back, but we didn’t. The place may have been impressive in its day, but for us, that day had come and gone. It's altogether possible that with sponsored tours, this place might give out a much different perspective. But for me, I’d never go back.
On with the tour. Bill spoke. We listened. That was the rule. You could ask questions when he was done talking. However, if you were female, you could ask him anything anytime you wanted! If you were standing near a weed, he’d point to it and tell you to pull it. We got the full presentation of his Bal Harbour property. His vision from start to present. From the high PH soil and high, brackish water table, to having 600 truckloads of special soil brought in to raise the ground level and provide more acidic soil for his plants. We learned of his successes as well as some failures. If a plant produced sub par fruit or didn’t produce well, out that tree came…even after waiting 10+ years for that tree to fruit! Then he’d start over with another cultivar. It was an education for sure.
After the tour, his wife served us refreshments. We sat around and chatted with Bill for a bit before we departed his 2 acres of tropical paradise. Definitely a day to remember and certainly a high point for my first tropical fruit trip. My wife enjoyed listening to Bill which was great. And even years later, if we are standing in the yard and she spots a weed, she would point and say “pull that”.
Erik was kind enough to continue driving us around. We visited Bill Mee’s lychee farm and stopped by the Broward Rare Fruit Council grounds for a walk around. I was rudely introduced to my first Florida fire ants here too. Even so, it was an incredible day. So Erik…a big thank you for my first ever tropical fruit adventure.
Fruit & Spice Park
All said, it was still a good first adventure. I learned a lot and got to try some new things. I would be a little wiser in the trips to come. For instance…visiting these places on your own for the first time is a lesson in frustration and can lead to disappointment. Make some contacts. It will make your visit so much more enjoyable. Most of these places have much to offer and having an experienced guide along will guarantee that you get the most out of them.
A bigger thank you to my wife. She endured several days of nothing but fruit related visits with no other stops at all. But I’m sure she was just perfectly happy being with me…