Yes, we have no bananas. But Florida growers do have lychees and atemoyas
Orange snippers in hand, Marc Ellenby trots down a row of trees with barely restrained enthusiasm. He pushes back leaves and branches to show off an unfamiliar cucumber-like fruit, the monstera; he praises new growth on a grafted tree stump.
``I'm real excited,'' he says, stopping to cut away dead branches on one small tree. ``I think we're appealing to the tastes of the times.''
The tastes of the times, it would appear, are changing.
For a small band of local growers, anyway, raising avocadoes, limes, and mangoes is old hat. These farmers are out to supplement south Florida's three largest tropical-fruit crops with a new generation of little-known fruits: such things as the atemoya (at-uh-MOY-yah), the lychee (LEE-chee), and the carambola (care-em-BO-la).
The carambola, a golden oblong exotic dubbed the ``star fruit,'' is an especially tantalizing prospect for growers like Mr. Ellenby.
``It's got it all,'' he says. ``It's attractive. It's got good presentation. [The fruit slices into five-point stars.] It has a lot, a lot, a lot.''
``I think it's going to be a big fruit,'' adds Joan Green, the largest local grower of a popular sweet variety.
``We still can't keep up with the demand,'' says Steve Biondo, another local grower, who like virtually everyone else, is rapidly expanding production.
Other strange-tasting, unknown fruits from south Florida are also gaining attention in the United States.
``I could sell 100,000 boxes of lychees without any problem at all,'' says Bill Schaefer, of the small, pulpy sweet fruit with a hard shell. ``And someday I will.'' Mr. Schaefer is marketing director for J. R. Brooks & Son Inc., the largest shipper of Florida tropical fruit.
Ellenby and his wife, Kiki, are making a push into atemoyas -- a bumpy, pulpy hybrid of two other exotic fruits, the cherimoya and the sugar apple. The crop won't support the family yet, says Ellenby, who holds a full-time job at J. R. Brooks & Son. But ``I expect we're going to do well.''
Profits can be phenomenal. One local grower estimates he made $30,000 an acre last year on his tiny carambola grove; $100,000 an acre on his lychees -- a very good crop from a fruit that does not produce consistently from year to year.
Everyone seems a bit baffled by the surge of interest within the past five years. The fruits have been around for years. (Most are listed in an 1887 US tropical-plant catalog.) But growers and marketers speculate that the market started expanding with the recent influx of Cuban, Asian, and other ethnic populations eager to eat fruits they grew up with.
``The price doesn't matter to any of these people,'' says Mrs. Ellenby, who sells almost all of her sugar apples to the local Cuban population. ``It reminds them of home.''
Now, interest in exotic tropical fruits is spilling over into the gourmet market, which seems awash with adventurous, upscale eaters.
In Chicago, chef Gregory Zifchak is toying with the Cape gooseberry, a husk-covered fruit the size of a cherry tomato. The price: up to $7 for nine ounces. ``An ever-increasing culinary sophistication at home,'' explains the September issue of Connoisseur magazine, ``has led to the extraordinary efforts of the farmers in subtropical fields.''
Or, as the growers put it, the yuppie will eat anything. ``I have people call me from all over,'' says Peggy Kenney, head of a Miami-based exotic-fruit shipping company called No Bananas. ``New York, they'll try anything. . . . Houston is very open-minded. Kansas City also seems to be very good.''
Though some of the new exotic-fruit growers are longtime south Florida farmers, many seem to be transplanted yuppies themselves -- drawn to the one area in the continental US that closely resembles a tropical climate. The Ellenbys are originally from Chicago. Mrs. Green hails from Detroit.
Some of this new-found interest, of course, is a passing fad, growers say. A few outside observers are even more skeptical.
``That's just foolishness,'' says Julia Morton, of reports that carambola production could catch up with the increasingly popular kiwi or the avocado, south Florida's largest tropical-fruit crop.
The avocado is a major tropical food, protests Dr. Morton, a research professor of biology at the University of Miami. The carambola ``is not that good.''
``We ought not to present everything coming down the pike as absolutely wonderful,'' cautions Robert J. Knight Jr., a research horticulturist with the US Agriculture Department's Agricultural Research Service. ``It's not.''
Of more than 600 edible tropical and subtropical fruits, for example, less than 25 are sold commercially, he says.
And even by the most optimistic standards, it will take several years before any of the exotic fruits reaches respectable production.
Last year, J. R. Brooks & Son shipped roughly 1.5 million boxes of avocados. Shipments of its most successful exotic fruit, the carambola, reached only 50,000 boxes.
Still, enthusiasm seems to be running high in south Florida.
``We were all skeptical when we started fooling with carambolas'' several years ago, says Mr. Schaefer of J. R. Brooks. Now, ``everyone is at fever-pitch, just scrambling to get their hands on something new and different.''