We took a field trip to RF Orchids, Fruit and Spice Park, and Andre’s Fish Farm in the Redland. We had a blast, and we learned a lot along the way, mostly about weird Miami plants that grow in our tropical climate — whether they should grow here or not. Here are five of the most unusual plants we learned about:
There are more than 100 species of vanilla orchids in the world, but only five grow in the U.S., and they only grow in South Florida. The most well-known of these is vanilla planifolia, which is the tree-climbing plant that produces the vanilla bean we know from commercial vanilla, the seeds of which you’ll recognize as those little black flecks in your favorite vanilla ice cream.
Since the species of bee that pollinates the flower doesn’t live here, RF Orchids pollinates their vanilla orchid by hand. Workers use tall ladders to climb up to eye-level with the bloom on the one morning it opens, and ensure it’s pollinated before it closes forever the same afternoon. If a bloom isn’t pollinated, the blossom withers and dies, but if pollination is successful, the fruit of the plant develops over nine months into that long, fragrant brown pod that makes your desserts so delicious.
The zombie palm, or zombia antillarum, is a small palm native to Hispaniola, but you can find them growing in South Florida too. They grow in clusters, with fan-like leaves, and their trunks are covered in long, spiky, needles.
In some folklore, the palm is believed to have magical properties, RF Orchids owner Robert Fuchs told us. Some believe that a prick from the thorn of the zombie palm will put a person to sleep, he said. Others say that the thorns were used in certain Voudou rituals. One study cites sources saying the oil from the palm’s seeds could awaken a zombie, or that a house with a roof of thatched zombie palm leaves would protect its inhabitants from zombies.
The jade vine, or strongylodon macrobotrys, was one of the most striking plants we saw at RF Orchids, with an other-worldly turquoise color and unusually shaped flowers. The vine is native to the Philippines, where rainforest destruction has now made it an endangered species.
For years collectors and botanists had kept healthy jade vines in tropical gardens, but the plants would not produce seed. After a careful study of the the plant’s anatomy, horticulturalists learned to mimic bat behavior to successfully pollinate the plant.
London’s Kew Gardens describes the process:
The bats hang upside down to sample the jade vine’s nectar, and the plant gently brushes pollen onto the bat’s head while it drinks. The next plant the bat visits collects the pollen from the first before brushing its own pollen to be transported elsewhere. It is a great example of co-evolution in action; the plant and the bat have evolved to work perfectly in cooperation with each other.
When we spotted the seed pods of the achiote tree, or bixa orellana, at Fruit and Spice Park, they looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. Clustered in clumps of 5 to 10 pods and covered in spiky red fur, the fruits hold a bright surprise inside.
Achiote seeds are covered in a red-orange pigment that’s sold as achiote, annatto, or bijol, and used commonly to color cheeses and many Latin American, Carribbean and Filipino dishes. The pigment is often used in place of more expensive saffron in rice dishes. In some native cultures, the pigment was used for body paint and a natural lip stain, giving it the nickname “lipstick tree.”
A few of our fellow travelers tried on the “lipstick,” which was surprisingly permanent and turned more orange throughout the day.
Gac fruit is a softball-sized, bumpy melon that contains clusters of bright red, edible pulp around strange, flat seeds that resemble fossils or stones. The fruit grows natively in Southeast Asia on a vine that our Fruit and Spice park tour guide, Roger, warned us is highly invasive in South Florida.
The pulp of the gac fruit, while mild in taste, is used frequently at special occasions like Vietnamese new year or weddings to color and flavor a special sticky rice dish. The pulp contains up to ten times more beta-carotene than carrots as well as up to seventy times more lycopene than tomatoes. Its high antioxidant content has made gac a popular food and juice supplement. Here’s a bit more about it, from Fruit & Spice Park tour guide Roger Blanco.