I couldn’t hardly believe it either, but it’s true. There is a very small cluster of durian trees growing near Miami, Florida. Since I was in Puerto Rico and passing through Miami anyway, I knew I had to go see these trees for myself. So I made plans to spend the day fruit hunting in Southern Florida.
The durian trees are located at the Fairchild Botanical Gardens in Coconut Grove, just south of Miami. David Fairchild was a botanist and plant explorer for the United States Department of Agriculture, and in many people’s eyes he is the fruit hunter. He traveled extensively, bringing home so many fruits that he completely altered the horticultural landscape of the United States. Over the years, Fairchild introduced 56 varieties of citrus, 40 of avocado, and 51 of mangoes, as well as guavas, lychees, loquats, figs, persimmons, pineapples, date
palms, lemon grass, starfruit and miracle fruit. The man liked fruit.
My friend Noel, who I met in Puerto Rico, brought me to the Botanical Gardens bright and early, before it got too hot. We bee-lined for the durian trees. I knew we had a long day of fruit hunting adventures and wanted to make sure we fit those in.
I knew just where to look: the five trees are located in a 38-foot tall greenhouse called the Whitman Pavilion in honor of William Whitman. Whitman was a prolific fruit collector who kept an extensive play garden of ultra-exotics near Biscayne Bay, North Miami. He passed away in 2007, but is to this day the only person to have successfully fruited mangosteen outside of a greenhouse. He is also grew durian, although his trees never fruited and it apparently took considerable work to keep them alive.
Inside the pavilion it was muggy and crowded with foilage. The flowers were incredible. I was particularly amazed by the White Bat Flower (Tacca integrifolia). With those delicate white “ears” and long whiskery tendrils, it was so startlingly different than any flower I’ve ever seen before that I fell in love with it immediately. The other flowers were gorgeous, but not very weird.
The pavilion isn’t large, yet it still took us a little while to find the durians. Maybe because we were debating over how much trouble we’d get in for picking the ripe mangosteens. Or because there were more unfamiliar fruits in need of examining, like Chupa-chupa and Araza (I’d just seen Achacharu in Puerto Rico).
And then we turned the corner and I spotted one. It was a skinny, nobbly looking little thing around 15-20 feet tall. The label was partially obscured by vanilla vines running up and down the trunk, so I had to step off the paved trail and go searching around for the labels (how much trouble do you get in for that?)
There were five trees of four different species: durio zibethinus, durio oxleyanus, two durio graveolens (of the Suluk 3 variety, similar to what we ate in Puerto Rico), and surprisingly, durio testudinarum.
Durio testudinarum, or kura kura, is a durian that Rob and I spent quite some time looking for in Central Borneo. It was funny to see it here in the USA, where it’s been all along! I could have saved myself the trouble and the long, terribly interesting boat trips upriver and just come here.
So far, none of the durian trees have born fruit, although one of them flowered for the first time this year. But the trees are young. The pavilion was finished in 2003, meaning that the trees, planted from seed, are only ten years old. Durian trees in the wild may take ten to fifteen years before producing fruit. I’ll be curious to see how these do.
Before heading out for other fruit adventures, we took a jaunt around the Edible Garden. Noel was keen to look at other plants too, but I’ll be honest – unless I can eat it, I have hard time being interested. We stopped to admire some Borassus palms, towering frond trees that look deceptively like coconuts. They’re from Africa, and according to Noel they are the only ones in the USA to bear fruit. Looks like the folks at Fairchild Botanical Gardens knows what they’re doing. I’ll be crossing my fingers for the durian.
Much thanks to Noel for taking the time off to show me around!