Gene Joyner inspects a peach developed by the University of Florida for growing in South Florida.

Gene Joyner inspects a peach developed by U of F botanists for growing in South Florida. All photos by Jan Norris.

Story and photos by Jan Norris

It’s 45 years in the making – or growing, but Gene Joyner has created a tropical rainforest in what was once an empty cow pasture in West Palm Beach.

Vanilla orchids climb a ceiba tree trunk. Vanilla pods are produced all along the vine.

Vanilla orchids climb a ceiba tree trunk. Vanilla pods are produced all along the vine.

It’s a labor of love. Joyner, the former 35-year director of horticulture at the Palm Beach County Extension office, and his volunteers have done it all, and mostly by hand.

The botanical garden, 2.5 acres west of the Palm Beach International Airport, has been featured in more than 500 TV shows, and it’s rarely a week that goes by without Joyner giving an interview or answering questions as a horticulture expert.

His legion of fans who’ve come to him for advice with chewed leaves, bugs in jars, fruit filled with holes, and dirt samples, have grown from South Florida groups to include a international web of tropical gardening enthusiasts.

At 69, he shows no signs of slowing. “I plant something every week,” Joyner says. “I get donations from all over – someone’s always giving me some plants.”

He conducts tours of the garden by request from plant clubs, growers or interested groups; master gardeners from the Mounts Botanical Gardens earn hours giving the monthly tours. Today, he’s giving me a private tour along the 1.5 miles of paths here.

It’s actually a backyard

Joyner lives at the front of the property. What began as landscape effort evolved with plants and seeds he gathered from his many horticulture trips around the world.

avocado sign detail

As most gardeners, he began conventional gardening – fertilizing, spraying for pests and trying to control the environment as he had seen his father, an area farmer, do.

Now, however, “We’re totally organic,” he said. “I gave away all the sprayers 25 years ago and haven’t sprayed or fertilized or anything since. It’s totally natural. We have enough natural pest controls.”

Mulch covers the 1.5 miles of pathways that wend this way and that under enormous tree canopies that lend dappled light to ferns, peace lilies and tropical shrubs. These fill in among the exotic trees common to rainforests around the world.

Birds, bats and beneficial insects rule here. As a squirrel skitters through the brush, Joyner nods and says, “He has to have his share, too.”

Praying hands bananas

Praying hands bananas

He leads the way through a string of giant sausage tree fruits. The brown pods are inedible, but the tree, with wide, spreading canopy was a popular landscape tree in the ’50s and ’60s in South Florida. Look for them in old neighborhoods, he says.

Pink pineapples are nestled under a few citrus and trees. More than 160 varieties of tropical fruits are among the 2000-plus plants. There are close to 40 types of bananas, including Saba from the Philippines and the Praying Hands variety – these are fused as a cupped hand on the stalk.

A bonanza of jackfruit on one tree.

A bonanza of jackfruit on one tree.

There are eight sapodillas, he said, with some coming in right now.  Pointing beyond it, he shows a cashew, and explains the fruits are just as useful in Central America as the nuts. “They make cashew wine – you can buy a bottle for $2; I’ve heard it’s quite good.”

Macadamia nuts, black walnuts and pecans are the other nuts Joyner grows.

The jackfruit are his prizes of the moment. Several trees are fruiting with clusters, but toward the back of the garden is a tree with at least 20 fruits hanging from stalks. “They can get up to 70 pounds. They’re native to Southeast Asia, and our Asian visitors love them.”

Jaboticaba, the grape-like fruits that grow along the trunk of its tree; several varieties of guanabana – also called soursop; monstera deliciosa, which takes two years to develop; and miracle fruit are among other exotics and tropicals thriving.

More common citrus, guava and breadfruit are in older parts of the garden.

What can’t he grow? “Durian. It’s too cold-sensitive. And rambutan. I get it going for a year, then it just dies off.” Mangosteen is the other fruit he’s envious of – growers here keep them in hot houses; he prefers to have it all natural.

Plants and fruits for sale

Some fruits are sold at the garden when available in quantity at bargain prices; most, however, are just set out during tours for tastings. Joyner helps supply fruits for the annual Tropical Fruit Ice Cream party put on by the Rare Fruit Council each year at the Mounts.

“We always have coconuts for people to take and sprout, too,” he said.  Joyner is generous almost to a fault; he shares seeds and cuttings willingly, and has a nursery where visitors can buy some of the more unusual varietals. He sells plants at the Mounts plants sales.

He’s frank in assessing those who plant and want to grow in Palm Beach County. “We’re losing growers,” he said. “The pressure on agricultural landholders is great; when they come in with all that money, it’s hard to say no.”

The result is dire, he said. “We’re going to have more expensive food. The person who only knows Publix or a supermarket is going to be in trouble. They’ll be paying a lot more.”

If you go

  • Gene Joyner’s Unbelievable Acres Botanic Gardens
  • 470 63rd Trail N., West Palm Beach
  • 561-242-1686

The garden is open once a month on the second Saturday, 1-5 p.m. Tours for 10 or more are given by appointment with a 3-day advance notice. Tours are $10 adults; $5 for children ages 6-11; under 6 are free.

Gene on path