How Plants Tell The Story Of Florida's Immigrant History

May 21, 2013

Immigrants have had a profound effect on South Florida. We all know about the influences on culture, food and language. But they changed the region's horticulture too.

Many of South Florida's plants have been brought here to improve the surrounds, provide food and shelter. Indeed, most of the plants that we consider iconic to South Florida are not native but transplants from elsewhere. Bougainvillea? It's a native of Mexico. Mangoes are originally from India. Even that most Floridian of fruits, oranges, are originally from China.

The stories of immigrant plants are as varied as the people who live here. For example, Carol Xavier, a Clairns spa specialist from the U.S. Virgin Islands, whose mother brought her samples of the native bay leaf tree and lemon grass that she is cultivating; Laura Mani is a former Microsoft engineer, who gave up her job to start a farm in the Redlands dedicated to growing plants from her native India.

There are others, like Laura Hamwey, who says she is growing fruit trees that she remembers having in her backyard in the Bahamas. Kirsten Llamas turned her stony patch in Pinecrest into a mixture of native and non-native plants, including a clambering vine from Papua New Guinea.

My family is one of the immigrant planters as well.

Having moved to South Florida  from from small villages in Jamaica, my parents set about turning their Miami Gardens home into their own reminder of the island. My father is the plant person. He was responsible for bringing over (by hook and by crook) many of the plants that graced their yard over the years. The garden has had cerassie (bitter melon), chocho (chayote squash), callaloo (a kind of spinach) and innumerable palm trees that have lived and died over the years.  We still have a 30-year-old naseberry tree, brought over as a sapling in a suitcase, and a soursop tree that was a gift from a Bahamian friend about 15 years ago.

But the plant that inspired this story grew in my parents back garden for nearly as long as we've been here. It's an ackee tree. Nothing says Jamaica (or points out a Jamaican) more than having an ackee tree in the yard. And my father, wanting this reminder of the island in his American dream home, smuggled the sapling in his suitcase shortly after we moved in. It was his first plant.

The ackee tree thrived, much the same way we transplanted Caribbeans did. It matured, blossomed and bore crop after crop of the bright-red, slightly poisonous fruit. It survived being badly pruned, cracked in half by a hurricane, and having an iguana live in it.

And then, recently, my father felt it was time to remove it for good. It had grown too tall, too rooted. He didn't think it (or the house) would survive hurricane season. So he chopped it down.

But he didn’t grub it up. And looking closely at the stump, new shoots are already growing; coming up once again, because the ackee, like all the other immigrants -- flora and fauna to South Florida -- has naturalized itself. It knows now that this place is its home.