The Forest and the Trees

Visitors seem a little perplexed when they encounter the jaboticaba trees in Gene Joyner's yard. As if its name weren't confusing enough, the Brazilian tree produces its purple, grapelike fruit in a rather odd fashion. "It looks like someone has glued grapes up and down the trunk and branches," explains Joyner. "They grow right off of the bark, not in clusters near the leaves."

Unusual? Yes. But so is having a yard full of plants and trees indigenous to the world's rain forests. Gene Joyner's Unbelievable Acres Botanic Gardens opened in 1970, and today the two-and-a-half-acre property in unincorporated Palm Beach County just outside of West Palm Beach is home to one of Florida's largest private collections of tropical fruit trees. More than 170 varieties -- including 92 types of citrus and 35 kinds of banana and plantain trees -- thrive in a junglelike setting created from scratch.

Joyner's crusade started back in junior college, when he stashed hundreds of potted tropical trees at his folks' house while working at a commercial nursery. After graduating from the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in plant science, he bought part of his parents' property and began to transform a sandy field into a subtropical rain forest by planting the trees he'd hoarded.

"It was for my own enjoyment, a personal hobby," recalls Joyner, who now works as an urban horticulturist for Palm Beach County. "But since the beginning I have had thousands of visitors."

Entrance fees go into a nonprofit trust designed to keep the attraction open after Joyner's gone. He covers operational costs, but with a growing enterprise, income from the Holiday Plant and Craft Sale on December 12 will help out.

After planting the largest species, which grew into the 100-foot-tall canopy of the forest, Joyner placed shade-loving trees and shrubs in their shadows. They grew so heartily, he had to cut pathways through the dense foliage so visitors could view the most picturesque plants up close.

"They really do have a chance to feel like they are out in the rain forest, miles from nowhere," says Joyner. "When you get 50 feet from the house, you can't even see the house. I used to have people get lost in there, so I finally put signs up."

So far, he says, no one has disappeared.

-- John Ferri

The Holiday Plant and Craft Sale takes place Saturday, December 12, from 1 to 5 p.m. at Gene Joyner's Unbelievable Acres Botanic Gardens, 475 First St. N., two miles west of Palm Beach International Airport. Admission is $2.50 for kids, $5 for adults. Tours are given between 1 and 5 p.m. on the second Saturday of every month. Call 561-655-7116.

 
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