Fruits and spices and everything nice

By Lynette Walther | Feb 20, 2020
Photo by: Lynette L. Walther Colorful and exotic, fruits from all over the world are grown at the Fruit and Spice Park.

REDLAND, Fla. — As winter wears on, adventurous travelers can dream of warm and welcoming tropical getaways filled with exotic delicacies.

But before you grab your passport for parts unknown, I’d like to suggest a destination that does not require crossing any oceans. It isn’t on some romantic island paradise nor is it a far-flung nation. It is located just south of Miami, Fla. Hopefully you can include it in your travel plans someday.

In the meantime, join me in a botanical park filled with tropical fruits and spices. But to get there first we have to drive through orchid country.

Heading down to southern Dade County on Krone Avenue through Redland, this fact becomes vividly apparent as we pass by one orchid nursery showroom after another. Tantalizing displays of glorious blooming orchids — placed in full roadside view — tempt close inspection. It is almost impossible to not succumb to the seduction.

Adding to the come-ons to slow down and loiter are a gauntlet of fruit stands bulging with colorful tropical fruits, produce galore, tropical plants and trees and more.

But we have bigger things to explore, bigger things to experience and taste on this outing. The Fruit and Spice Park is up ahead in Redland.

Officially known as The Preston B. Bird/Mary Heinlein Fruit and Spice Park, the absolutely unique 37-acre botanical garden and park contains more than 500 varieties of fruits, vegetables, spices and herbs.

If you have a bucket-list of botanical parks, this one has to be at or near the top. It is right here in Florida to boot. You don’t have to undertake foreign travel to experience this marvel of fruits and spices from around the globe.

According to the park literature: “The Fruit and Spice Park was the realization of one woman’s vision to create a showcase for the rich agricultural bounty and heritage of the area known as Redland.

"Mary Calkins Heinlein came from a family of pioneer homesteaders in Redland which got its name from the reddish color of its soil. Redland became the first lasting settlement of South Dade County as its sub-tropical climate created a unique agricultural environment able to produce a wide variety of exotic fruit.

"An 1896 newspaper stated that farmers in South Dade were producing “avocado pears, mangos, sapodillas, pa paw (papaya), lemons, limes, etc.”

These were just some of the sub-tropical fruits and plants Heinlein felt would provide a unique garden display.”

We planned our visit to arrive early and take time exploring the vast collection there. We brought hats for sun protection, comfortable shoes for walking the trails, even light rain jackets — just in case — and of course our cameras.

Guided tours are conducted every day at 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m.

We also planned for lunch at the charming Mango Cafe there, which has a Florida lobster roll that on its own is worth the drive, just for its generous helping of succulent lobster.

As we enter the park’s rustic reception building, we are drawn to a veritable bounty of tropical fruits, nuts and spices that are displayed before us for our amazement and enjoyment.

The colors, aromas, and tastes are intoxicating. Jujube, Mamey sapote, canistel, rolinnia (Oh, yum!) and Malay apple join familiar coconut, papaya and carambola (star fruit). These are in season now, but the palette changes with the year.

Our adventure is only just beginning with those succulent fruits whetting our appetite for more.

Into the park itself, we follow trails that lead under a pergola thick with vines, we take other trails that beckon and wind through a tropical herb garden with waterlily-filled pools.

But the real adventure begins when we board the tram-train to tour the entire park. With the help of a knowledgeable guide, we discover the astonishing diversity of what is growing there, like a mango forest with more than 180 varieties.

In all, there are some 600-plus mango varieties grown in tropical regions around the world.

The shady grove of bananas includes skyscraper-tall varieties, some with mesmerizing yellow blooms the size of basketballs and others with thousands of tiny finger-sized bananas on a single stalk, and even a banana “bar” where visitors can belly up to sample unusual bananas.

There are 40 different banana varieties growing at the park.

As our trams wends its way through the park, we see coconut oil trees, and they look nothing like what most of us envision them. At one point, the tram enters and slowly proceeds through an enormous greenhouse that shelters even more tender tropical plants and trees.

During our tram tour, we learn how a number of spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and annatto (achiote tree) grow, how they are harvested and used, as we see them thriving there on trees.

After our tram tour, we linger, follow more trails and re-visit some of the varieties for a closer look, even stop for a “tourista” portrait with a huge a’la Carmen Miranda cutout touting the park. This amazing place really pulls you into the tropics.

Truth be told, we were a tad jealous of that little garden of Eden, and the lavishness of fruits it contained. So many bizarre, luscious fruits and plants we had never even heard of. Some of them seemed to have jumped out of a Dr. Seuss book.

But be warned, this unique botanical park just might make you also want to grow some of those exotic fruits and spices too.

Sadly, though, without moving to the tropics, that would be nearly impossible. Thank goodness there exists a place like the Fruit and Spice Park where we have the opportunity to encounter and enjoy those marvelous tropical fruits and spices.

A number of food and ethnic festivals are held throughout the year at the park that is located at 187th Ave, Homestead, Fla.

If you are driving there, keep a sharp lookout for the little sign on Krone Avenue that directs visitors to the park a few blocks away.

The Fruit and Spice Park is open Monday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but is closed Thanksgiving and Christmas days.

This park is part of the Miami-Dade County’s Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Department. The garden, its buildings and its tour vehicles are accessible to people with disabilities.

Lynette L. Walther is the GardenComm Gold medal winner for writing and a five-time recipient of the GardenComm Silver Medal of Achievement and the National Garden Bureau’s Exemplary Journalism Award. Her gardens are in Camden.

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