Thursday, November 24, 2011

Tropical fruit and spice park

In November 2011 I traveled to South Florida and visited both Fruit & Spice Park and Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens*.

I was hoping to sample more tropical fruits this trip, but only a few varieties were fruiting in mid November. If I visited in July, I would've been there for Mango Madness, where Fairchild offers samples of rarer mango cultivars at the peak of their ripeness.

And if I lived there I'd be able to regularly attend workshops with themes like Ice Cream from Tropical Fruit and Lychee and disturbs even me the levels of jealousy I experience when I think about these things I'm missing as a non-South Florida resident.

Anyway, here are several of the more fascinating plants I came across at Fruit & Spice Park:

Ylang ylang
The blossoms are very fragrant, with narrow yellow-green spidery petals. Essential oils derived from the flowers are used in perfumes like Chanel no. 5.

Ylang ylang blossom

You know the root, but might not be familiar with the flowers. Squeezing the flowers produces a clear liquid that smells very fresh and fragrant. It's often used to make sweet-smelling lotions and shampoo.

Ginger flowers (picked)

Wild pineapple
Also called the "original pineapple," this plant bears egg-shaped orange fruits that taste exactly like pineapple. It's often planted near fences or under windows because its extremely sharp, deep green leaves that can act as effective barriers.

Wild pineapple

Certain chewing gum makers came across this fruit, and tried to replicate its taste in Juicy Fruit gum. The fibers were very strong and elastic, but it tasted and smelled like a mix of pineapple, banana, and strawberries.

Jackfruit being cut up for samples

Jackfruit growing on the tree

Egg fruit, or Canistel
Soft and crumbly, with the texture of a cooked egg yolk (hence its name). Tasted like a baked potato crossed with an unripe persimmon, with a lingering chalky aftertaste. Not my favorite, but apparently it's great for ice creams and custards.

Canistel fruit. Photo credit: Carib Fruits

Bay Rum.
Used in men's aftershave/cologne. Leaves smelled exactly like it.

Bay rum leaf

Midnight Horror, or the Broken Bones Plant
A tree that's creepy in a couple ways. When its large leaf stalks wither and fall off the tree, they appear like piles of dried human bones. It's also a night-bloomer, with blossoms that emit a strong and foul-smelling odor that attracts bats, which pollinate it.

Midnight Horror. Look hard to see the elongated seedpods.

African Sausage Tree
Best name for a tree, ever. The fruit are leathery and not really edible for humans, but hippos, baboons, giraffes and other mammals love these.

African Sausage Tree

The little fruits turn from white to red to black as they ripen. When ripe, the fruits are sweet and sour, reminiscent of pomegranates, but with the texture of miniature blueberries.

Antidesma fruits

These fruit were the size of a large grapefruit, with a spiny exterior and magenta-red insides that have been likened to "human intestines." The red oil from the seed chambers is used as a dye. The mesocarp (yellow flesh) of the fruit is poisonous, but the seeds and red oil surrounding the seeds are edible, though on some accounts not very flavorful, and not worth eating unless for potential nutritional benefit.

Gac fruit, found on the ground

There were some other plants that I encountered – poisonous, hallucinogenic, and crazy in all types of ways – I'll write about those some other time.

* These two parks offer totally different experiences. Here's how I'd describe the difference between the two: Fairchild is like a Whole Foods; Fruit & Spice is like a farmer's market. Fairchild is enormous, its displays are meticulously pruned (walking in their Rainforest section reminded me of the Lost World ride at Universal Studios), its visitors are on the more affluent side, and it's extremely touristy. Fruit & Spice just had a lot more local flavor, felt a lot more intimate, and offered generous samples.