by Dan Millot
In 1935, a Dade County park director, Doug Barnes, began circulating an idea among his colleagues that the county should create a park showing the public how to grow tropical plants.
Barnes envisioned a park that would be a live teaching lab. Residents unfamiliar with the tropical bounty that Dade County could produce might be inspired to grow some of the plants themselves.
It worked, and the Fruit & Spice Park, now an iconic site for plant lovers, is a thriving collection of plants that are used as teaching aids by botanists and growers alike. It is the only tropical botanical garden in the U.S.
Trees bearing carambola (star fruit), lychees, avocados, 75 types of bananas, and 160 varieties of mangoes fruit each year. Nut and spice trees, tropical vegetables, and herbs also dot the paths. Surviving hard freezes and hurricanes, these subtropicals and exotics, planted years ago, still flourish after decades.
With World War II breaking out in the 1940s, Barnes’ idea lay dormant for a while as he and others were taken from their civilian jobs and began military service. But by 1944, the idea took root once more, and work began on what is now the Preston B. Bird and Mary Heinlein Fruit & Spice Park.
Rosemary Eliker of Miami, now 87, was a youthful volunteer in the park’s infancy. Her mother, Mary Hawkins Heinlein, one of the park’s namesakes, ran a plant nursery at the time. After campaigning for Preston B. Bird for county commissioner, she saw to it that he kept his promise to establish a tropical plant park.
She donated about 300 plants to get the park started. The original 18 acres were purchased by Dade County.
“The fruit park would let people see how big the plants could get, to show what the blossoms would look like, and what the fruit would look and taste like,” she said.
Eliker said the physical plan for the park was laid out by Dr. William Lyman Phillips, a landscape architect. Each plant and tree was placed where his plan dictated.
Because Dade County’s layer of topsoil above the ever-present limestone is so thin, Eliker said, they used dynamite to blast through the limestone layer to create deeper holes for larger plants and trees.
As plants were placed, the small “army” of volunteers (three) had to carry water to the site by the bucket since there was no on-location well.
Eliker said that in the early days of the park, each Sunday at 3 p.m., walking tours were offered. “People could see what was planted, and they could taste the fruit if it was available.”
Mary Heinlein, named the site’s first superintendent, remained until 1959.
The most recent park director, Chris Rollins, who retired in 2014 after 34 years, was in demand as a speaker internationally for his knowledge. As a result, he spent years traveling the globe to bring back unique plants, and he oversaw a large expansion of the park in the 1980s.
Today the park has grown to 37 acres. More than 500 plant and tree varieties dot the park, organized by their region of origin. Sections of the park boast plants from tropical South America, Asia, Africa, Australia, the Pacific, and the Mediterranean.
While South Florida weather is subtropical, the occasional freeze makes conditions tough on tropical plants from some parts of the world. To prevent permanent damage, the park has greenhouses that protect those fragile plants.
The park has weathered several hurricanes, too. But Hurricane Andrew hit the park hard in August 1992. More than 750 canopy trees were destroyed. Electrical power was out until November.
Eliker said, “Andrew took away leaves and branches, but they were able to upright a lot of the trees. There was damage to the buildings in the park.”
One of the buildings – the historic Bauer-Neill-Mitchell House, a turn-of-the-century pioneer home – was also destroyed. Later, it was rebuilt as a facsimile, and the building now houses the park’s culinary attraction, the Mango Café.
Today visitors can hear the park story from volunteer guides while aboard trams that travel the grounds, and they can sample fruit set out at the park store and in the café. The park rules prohibit fruit from being picked from trees except by staff.
Growing in popularity
Brian Cullen, public facilities manager at the Fruit & Spice Park, said attendance has climbed each year. “It was 15,000 annually when I started here nine years ago,” he said. Current figures are 50,000 visitors each year at the park, which is now operated by paid county workers as well as volunteers.
Special events are hosted here throughout the year, including dinners, plant festivals, and workshops, and other programs. A free Fall Star Gazing Party is scheduled October 30, and the Redland Fish Fry Seafood Festival is set for November 7-8. Private parties can rent the park for special events such as weddings.
The park remains an educational tool, as originally intended. Students of tropical landscaping, and of sustainable and edible farming, come here to learn and to see mature specimens. Workshops provide information on growing the plants and edibles, with ecology a major focus.
The garden’s inspirational value is evident across South Florida. Drive through an older neighborhood where tropical fruit trees are planted, and you just might find a makeshift stand whose owner is selling the bounty from trees that were planted, years ago, after a visit to the Fruit & Spice Park.
If you go:
Preston B. Bird and Mary Heinlein Fruit & Spice Park
- 24801 S.W. 187th Ave., Homestead, Fla.
- 305-247-5727; www.fruitandspicepark.org
- Open 9am-5pm daily, except Thanksgiving and Christmas. The Mango Café is open 11am-4pm daily.
- Admission: $8 for adults, $2 for children 6-11