Food
4:11 pm
Wed July 3, 2013

Meet Hunters Who Discover New Fruit For South Florida

Noris Ledesma poses with mangos at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens.
Credit Kaylois Henry

If you've ever found yourself biting into a tangy sapote, or a lush mango, give a small thanks to fruit hunters.

Dr. Richard Campbell, director of horticulture at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens and his sapotes.
Credit Kaylois Henry

Fruit hunters are an intrepid band of explorers, growers and researchers. For decades, they have introduced most of the fruit that we enjoy in South Florida. The area's climate is conducive to growing most of the tropical fruit from nearly all the world's continents. Fruit hunters will travel the lengths of the earth, as well as mining their own back yards, in search of the newest, rarest and tastiest plants.

Noel Ramos poses with his jackfruit tree, one of two in the garden of his home in Coral Springs.
Credit Kaylois Henry

There's Noel Ramos, who works for a medical supply company. Noel's been fascinated by fruit much of his life -- having come from a farming family in his native Puerto Rico.

Ramos has traveled all over Latin America trying to find fruits -- abius and sapotes in particular. It's gotten so bad that even on family trips, he finds himself searching for fruit.

Once, while on a stopover during a cruise to Cozumel, Mexico, Ramos found himself missing out on the Mayan ruins.

"As I'm touring the ruins, I'm looking and seeing soursops, all kinds of anonas, all kinds of things," he said. "I'm always looking for new varieties of things that are unique and that I can grow back home."

To call fruit hunters merely obsessive would be to do them a disservice. Sure, the behavior can seem a bit, well, concentrated.

Warren Condon poses with a Garcinia prainiana (Cherapu, button mangosteen) in his garden.
Credit Kaylois Henry

Warren Condon, who works for the U.S. government, has turned the tiny bare garden of his Kendall home into a near jungle of saplings, trees and vines from a myriad different plants he's gathered as seed and samples from across the world.

Condon admits that "fruiting is basically the ultimate goal. To say, 'Look, I fruited this.' " But the pursuit of new fruits is also about knowledge. Some fruits could have medicinal properties that may even help fight cancer, Condon said. 

It's this element of preservation that drives Dr. Richard Campbell, director of horticulture at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens. Campbell is a fruit specialist with more than 20 years experience. Part of his job at Fairchild is to try gather new and different varieties of fruit from around the world and expose as many people to them as possible.

"If at the end of the day people believe that we have always grown a particular mango or durian here in South Florida, then I can leave happy," Campbell said. "I want to make the different common place."

Dragon Fruit vines grow like wild hair in Warren Condon's garden.
Credit Kaylois Henry

Perhaps the one fruit that comes in for the most slavish devotion in South Florida is the mango. Everyone thinks they know mangos -- that sticky sweet fruit that grows in many yards. But there is so much more to them. Noris Ledesma is the curator of tropical fruit at Fairchild and mangos are her life.

"You know, mango is so special for me, it's in every part of my cells, it is in my soul. It represents my heritage, my past, my present and my future," she said.

A native of Colombia, Ledesma said she was literally reared on tropical fruit -- her grandmother used to put banana pulp in her milk as a baby. Mangos were a staple and represent memories.

A close up of dragon fruit in bloom.
Credit Kaylois Henry

Now, at Fairchild, she and Campbell are part of an effort to introduce new species of mangos into South Florida to strengthen and improve the local crops (which suffer from myriad different pests and blights) and preserve some of the more exotic sorts of mangos.

Ledesma and Campbell were recently featured in a documentary called "Fruit Hunters." The film, by the Chinese-Canadian director Yung Chang, explores the passionate relationship people have with fruits and their efforts to track them down. The crew followed Ledesma and Campbell as they made their way to Borneo to track down some rare mango species.

The team managed to bring back a few new species which they are hoping will take root soon at the garden. In the meantime, Ledesma said she will keep working with mangos.

"Every fruit you grew up with it goes into your brain, into your soul, into your body. But especially mangos. You don't see this with apples, you don't see this with grapes or peaches or pears. This is something that the mango has." 

Editor's Note: The film, "Fruit Hunter," is currently making the rounds of film festivals in Canada and the U.S. A screening in South Florida has still not been announced. You can find more information here: (http://www.eyesteelfilm.com/fruithunters)

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