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Southwest Florida

Florida's Gulf Coast

The Garden of Eden

Text and photos by Kathleen Walls American Roads Travel Magazine

Have you ever dreamed of being set down in a tropical Garden of Eden? Free to wander under the shade of the trees of good and evil. Equipped with a guidebook to help you avoid the evil while sampling the good. Sound like a beautiful dream? No! It's a reality at the Fruit and Spice Park located near Homestead, Florida.

Vanilla Bean plants are just one of the tropical delights here

The Park is the only one of its kind in the United States. Proudly showcasing over five hundred varieties of exotic fruits, nuts, herbs and spices, many are grown no where else in the country.

Although the park is only thirty-five miles south of Miami in distance, in ambience its lush, peaceful greenery is as far removed from the hustle and bustle of busy Miami as you can get. This thirty five acre tropical garden sits in the heart of America's produce cornucopia. Before you arrive at the park, you must drive past unending vistas of ripening produce. Even when the rest of the country is locked in winter's fiercest grip, bright red tomatoes, vivid yellow squash, orange trees drooping under their succulent burden, all these and more burst from the earth. Homestead and Florida City, with their small town charm, exist mainly to satisfy our craving for produce. For this reason, The Fruit and Spice Park is totally at home here.

No matter how tempting it looks on the tree, you are forbidden to pick it.

As you enter the gardens through a gift shop stocked with many unusual jams, jellies and teas as well as a vast supply of horticultural books. A member of the friendly staff greets you. They provide you with an array of unusual fruit samples to taste. Depending on the season, you might bite into a crunchy tartness of a Carambola, the star fruit, or the surprising sweetness of a Pumello that looks like a pink grapefruit but taste more like a succulent orange or one of hundreds of other fruits you didn't know existed.

The park's policy is "you may sample any fruits on the ground but may not pick anything." They loan you a guidebook to edible plants to prevent you from accidentally munching any of the poisonous plants displayed there.

If you wish, you may take one of the guided tours at 11 AM, 1 or 2:30 PM. This is a great way to get a lot of information about the plants that is not included in the guidebook.

If you prefer to strike out on your own, you can explore at your own pace. The park is divided into ethnic theme areas; tropical America, Asia, Africa, Australia, the Pacific and the Mediterranean. There is also a poisonous plants section, a citrus area, a Fiber, Dye and Latex Collection, and a Custard Apple Collection. Benches scattered throughout the park are great spots to stop and munch on some of your scavenged treats. If you want, you can bring a picnic lunch to enjoy under the shade of tropical trees such as the Panama Candle Tree whose fruits resemble tapering yellow candles. Or perhaps you would prefer to sit under the Guinea Chestnut Tree with its large red and white flowers.

Since its establishment by the Miami-Dade County Park and Recreation Department in 1944, the Fruit and Spice park has provided more than just a spot of beauty. The current director, Chris Rollins takes active part in an exchange program that introduces plants from many tropical countries to the United States. He also tries to educate the growers, both vast plantation owners and home gardeners, about these ethnic fruits and vegetables. The Park provides workshops and classes as well as cuttings and seeds.

The classes are as varied as the plants themselves. They range from instructions on how to grow the types of fruit and vegetables found there to cooking delectable desserts. They take you on field trips to local nurseries, groves and other botanical gardens. They even teach beekeeping or aquaculture. For the history buff, there is Pioneer Day where they honor the agricultural pioneers of South Dade County. If you are an incurable romantic, take one of the Moonlight Tours and see the garden in a different light. Whenever you visit, there is sure to be something interesting going on at the park.

A highlight of the park calendar is the Thai Festival. Held in early March, this show features Asian crafts, arts, dance, music and, of course, an abundance of Asian food. If you have a child, he or she will be given an Asian Passport and can have it stamped at each booth.

The park hosts several other fun shows. In January, the Redland Natural Arts Festival showcases arts, crafts, food and entertainment on the lawn under the trees. Redland Farm and Garden Show, in April, is a chance to view antique farm implements and sample unusual ice cream flavors. Vanilla will never be the same after you have eaten Mango, Lychee or Soursop ice cream.

Flower lovers will want to schedule a visit in May when they present the Redland International Orchid Show. There will be over 50 booths of Orchid exhibit. For the grower, lectures on "How to.." topics are conducted by experts.

"Robert is Here" offers more than your average fruit stand.

If you fall in love with the taste of some of the exotic fruit, don't despair of ever tasting it again. Much of the park's unusual produce can be found at an unique store nearby. "Robert is Here," a very different kind of produce market is located just outside of Florida City on the road into Everglades National Park. They are the most popular stand in the area. And with good reason. Along with a supply of native and exotic produce, they are home to several Iguanas and quite a few turtles. You can usually find a cat snoozing among the produce just a few feet from a brightly colored Macaw perched on a large wooden ring. If you're lucky, he'll say a few words to you, the bird not the cat. They also sell a delicious concoction called a Smoothie. Try a Key Lime one for a cool treat.

The Fruit and Spice Park is open daily 10 to 5 except Christmas day. It's the only place you will visit where you can eat more than your $3.50 admission. If you find yourself strangely reluctant to bite into an apple there, remind yourself this paradise encourages you to sample the fruit.

Provided by American Roads Travel Magazine - Visit American Roads Travel Magazine website.