Oh, South Florida, how do we love you? Let us count the ways: Tons of sun. Pleasant, year-round temperatures. Some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Yes, living in paradise certainly has its benefits — especially when it comes to eating exotic foods — and we at Clean Plate Charlie aren't just fanatical about the wide variety of restaurants and cuisine available to us. We also love all of the local fresh produce at our disposal. Thanks to sub-tropical climes we have the ability to grow more rare and exotic fruits and vegetables year-round over any other place in the country. Take that California!
Whether we're mulling over ways to use up all those ripe mangos falling from trees left and right, or sipping a lychee martini made with the local-grown fruit, it seems like there's so much more we're missing. And there is.
What about all those other rare fruits and trees like sapote, sapodilla, jackfruit and custard apples? How do you grow them? Where can you buy them? And what does their fruit taste like? If you've ever asked any of these questions, you may want to consider becoming a member of the Palm Beach chapter of the Rare Fruit Council, a local non-profit organization with one mission: to foster and the growth of rare fruit in South Florida.
The Rare Fruit Council was originally founded here in South Florida in Miami in 1955, a way to help share the knowledge of exotic fruits grown locally. It later expanded to become the Rare Fruit Council International, an international body of commercial growers, professional researchers and hobbyists, fruit breeders and fruit eaters — basically anyone with an interest in rare fruits. The Palm Beach County chapter held its first meeting in 1970, and today stands as the first local chapter of the Rare Fruit Council International.
Since that time, the local chapter has grown — slowly. There are currently just over 300 members, a number current chapter president Charlotte Gomes hopes to grow during the course of her term. With more than 100 varieties of rare and exotic fruits in her own back yard, Gomes said she is proof that you can learn to grow fruit trees at any age.
"I grew up believing that everything in Florida was poisonous [and could kill you if you ate it]," Gomes told Clean Plate Charlie during a recent interview. "Then I married Gary, who grew up in Guyana. We would go for walks in the parks around South Florida together and he would pick all kinds of fruits and eat them. Today, we laugh about it, because not only did he survive, but I have discovered a whole world of delicious fruit and now we spend much of our time educating others about them."
Today, there are more than 100 rare and exotic fruits grown right here in South Florida — many of them in people's back yards — including some you may have never heard of before like soursop, cecropia, grumichama, jujube and jaboticaba. And the people who own these plants share their seeds at the Palm Beach Rare Fruit Council monthly meetings, which are held the 2nd Friday of each month at 7:30 p.m. in the Mount's Botanical building located at 531 N. Military Trail in West Palm Beach.
During these meetings, dozens of members gather to hear a specialist in the plant world give an educational lecture on a variety of topics including new gardening techniques, plants or products. In April, the council will be hosting a speech by Dr. Richard Campbell, director of horticulture and senior curator of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, who will be discussing the specialized pruning techniques for some of South Florida's most popular fruit trees including mangos, lychee, longan, jackfruit and and peaches.
There is also a table set aside for seed exchange and raffles, as well as a small gathering area where members bring home-baked goods using their exotic fruits to share with the group. Both services are available to paying members free of charge, but are not open to the public.
If you're interested in sampling the fruit, but don't want to attend the chapter's monthly meetings, stay tuned, said Gomes. The council is in the process of building an online fruit stand that will make it possible for members and owners of rare and exotic fruit trees and plans to share their bounty with the rest of us.
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"We are always being asked by members of the public where they can buy [our] fruit. Many of them do not have land to plant on or are too busy to grow their own," said Gomes. "We are hoping to provide a service [through our website] where club members...who have excess fruit...will be able to post what they have available online and sell it."
Interested in becoming a member? A one-year membership costs $25, and once enrolled you will receive a monthly newsletter, have access to the website's educational resources and will be able to attend a variety of organized field trips to members' yards and local orchards. Members can also choose from a variety of free classes, including a popular propagation class to learn how to graft and air-layer tropical fruit trees.
Looking for more ways to get involved in a good cause? Try volunteering: The council also provides a number of volunteer opportunities to participate as part of the group's committee, or any one of its annual events including the council's twice-yearly plant sale where they sell fruit trees, seeds and plants to the general public. This year's fruit sales will take place April 20 and June 20 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the South Florida Fairgrounds.