The Fruits of Paradise: Southwest Florida's Tropical Delights
Jul 01, 2010 12:00AM
● By Linda Sechrist
With fruits now hot-listed as healthy foods that can reduce disease-causing inflammation and slow the aging process, health-conscious individuals are intentionally seeking the biggest nutritional bang for their calorie buck. Depending on the season, a shopper browsing their grocery’s produce aisles or local farmers’ market will typically find an assortment of 12 to 24 varieties of fruits grown in Florida, across the U.S., and in other countries.
While this may seem like an abundance of diversity, it pales compared to the 2,000 varieties of wild and cultivated fruit plucked fresh by Amazonian and Peruvian rainforest residents, who rely upon their fruit for the vitamins, proteins and essential fatty acids the rest of us get from a mixture of other foods, including vegetables and nuts.
Today, exotic fruit trees from other sub-tropical and tropical climates are being cultivated and harvested by local food enthusiasts whose gardening talents are expanding into more vertical interests. Planted in yards, the trees are not only yielding nutrient-packed edibles, but also enjoyable learning experiences and opportunities for community-building, rooted in common interests.
Exotic Names, Delectable Flavors
Trevor Parks knows his fruit trees and can spell the names of all 250 on his 1.5-acre homesite as easily as he can describe how their bounty tastes. “I am from Jamaica, where many of these fruits are a staple of the diet,” says the vice president of the Bonita Springs Tropical Fruit Club.
Fruits like Kwai Muk, Longan, Malay apple, Surinam cherry, Bunchosia argentea, Jujube, Picanteria, Genip and Grumichama roll off Parks’ lips as glibly as others in his assortment of trees: 40 different types of mangos, 20 varieties of citrus, 10 species of avocado and eight banana varieties, among others. In all, he nurtures 70 varieties of fruit.
Parks, who developed the hobby of growing fruit trees after he retired, eagerly shares his harvests with more than 200 members of his club. “About 30 to 40 of us get together twice a month at the Bonita Springs First United Methodist Church to eat the fruits of our efforts,” explains Parks, who notes that speakers and field trips are also part of the club’s agenda.
The two best things about growing fruit, says Parks, are eating it and the minimal effort it takes to cultivate. He generously passes along his self-taught experience in tree pruning, as well as some of his harvests, to Frank DeNardis, a club member with a wholesale license to buy and sell trees, and others like Marianne Luch, a Naples resident who occasionally attends meetings and accompanies the group on field trips.
The mango trees in Luch’s yard account for five of her 30 fruit trees, several of which she has purchased from DeNardis, whose enthusiasm for these tropical plants is obvious. “I’m in love with everything about fruit trees, especially the eating part,” quips DeNardis, whose grove is located on his north Naples homesite. At 88, no longer able to do his own trimming, he relies upon Parks to prune the trees that bear edibles unfamiliar to most Southwest Floridians: jack fruit, a sweet, yellow, fleshy fruit whose flavor mimics pineapple; mamey sapote, a foot-long fruit with orange flesh that tastes somewhat like pumpkin; canistel, a glowing yellow, waxy-skinned exotic with pulp the consistency of a hard-boiled egg yolk; jaboticaba, whose purple fruit is reminiscent of sweet grapes; black sapote, with a rich, custard-like, mildly chocolate-flavored flesh; and longan, a fleshy fruit that resembles an eyeball and tastes like the better-known lychee.
“I’d love to see more Naples residents growing fruit trees in their yards,” remarks DeNardis. “Southwest Florida is a great place to raise tropical fruit, and although home-grown may not be as pretty as store bought, it is the best. Not just because it is free of chemicals, but also because it tastes better.”
Luch can attest to DeNardis’s opinion of homegrown fruit and enjoys eating her own, as well as that given to her by Parks and DeNardis. “Trevor brought me some of his delicious peaches, plums and white mulberries when he came to trim my trees the other day,” advises Luch, who credits the two men and the tropical fruit club meetings for what she has learned about cultivating trees. She enthusiastically offers some important advice: Buy what you love to eat, and purchase trees that are more mature. “Although they cost $175 to $200, I was able to pick 20 beautiful mangos from one of my trees the first year,” notes Luch, whose raw food lifestyle is supported by her bountiful orchard.
According to Luch, fruit trees are easy to grow and inexpensive to maintain. She explains, “I pay Frank $40 to pick up and deliver a load of manure, which I get for free from a local horse farm. I also get free mulch, which I mix with the manure and spread around my trees, but not too close to risk burning their roots.” During the year, she also fertilizes the trees with two bags of organic fertilizer at a cost of $30. “I think $70, plus the cost of tree trimming, which keeps the trees a manageable size so I can pick the fruit myself, isn’t an expensive investment to make in something that gives me a good return and the rich reward of good health.”
John Puig is enthusiastic about planting fruit tree orchards in schoolyards so students can have a source of healthy snacks for decades to come. “Not only do the trees help the environment,” advises the vice president of the Collier Fruit Growers Council, “but they also give teachers an opportunity to hold science classes outside.”
Puig facilitates an organic garden project that includes a tropical fruit tree nursery at Eden Florida’s Eimerman Education Center for autistic children and adults, in Naples. He also planted a fruit tree garden at East Naples Middle School. “Our fruit growers council hosts tree sales at Freedom Park, in Naples, and the money we raise pays for the trees we plant at the schools,” says Puig.
Like Luch, DeNardis and Parks, Puig has planted exotic trees such as Barbados cherry, jujube and longan, in addition to mulberry, mango, avocado and star fruit. Self-taught, he advises that much of his fruit tree education came from council members and presentations at monthly meetings, which are open to the public. “We always have a presentation, a half-hour social and networking period and a fruit tasting, as well as a $1 raffle for a tree that is valued at $100 to $200,” says the proponent of edible landscapes.
“Homeowners in single-family dwellings, as well as multi-family condominium communities, are really missing out on a great opportunity to plant trees that provide shade, are easy to grow and aesthetically beautiful, and if properly planned, can bear nutritious food nearly year-round that can be eaten raw or, sometimes, cooked,”
David Hill, a professional private chef, frequently cooks with tropical fruits, preferring mainstays like mangos and pineapple. “Grilled fruit for dessert is a healthy way of thinking outside the box,” says Hill, noting it is vital to have a hot, clean grill, so fruit cooks evenly. “Don’t use olive oil, because you want the real flavor of the fruit to come through, not the oil,” he cautions.
A simple cooked fruit dessert that Hill favors is a grilled pineapple wheel topped with organic ice cream. Peel the pineapple, he instructs, then cut half-inch rounds. Grill the rounds until they are lightly charred on both sides and serve with a scoop of organic vanilla ice cream.
Those who grow fruit are blessed with a colorful rainbow of nutrient-dense food for their breakfast, lunch, dinner or dessert plates. If Adam and Eve had left the world a memoir, chances are it would be filled with musings of how much they enjoyed their garden’s flavorful fruits. The good news: In our sub-tropical paradise, we can recreate their exotic orchard in our own backyard.
Bonita Springs Tropical Fruit Club, email [email protected] or call 239-992-4664.
To make an appointment to visit Frank DeNardis’s nursery, located at 108 Viking Way, in Naples, call 239-597-8359.
Collier Fruit Growers Council, visit
John Puig, Garden at Eden, visit JohnPuig.com or Facebook page: