Agri Leader

In search of exotic fruits

If you're in search of exotic fruit trees, then Randy Thompson of Thompson's Nursery and Vineyards in Valrico is your man.

Longans, mango, cherries, apples (a variety that can grow in Florida), Vietnamese pomegranate, figs, mamey, lychee, and jaboticaba - these trees are all available at Thompson's farm, and they'll bear fruit as the temperatures get warmer in the spring and summer.

As Thompson explained to me on a recent sunny Saturday visit to the three-acre farm, he likes to help customers out when they are looking for a certain fruit. Many of these fruits grow in South Florida's tropical climate, but Thompson, a curious farmer, will get them from a buyer down further South and see how well they can fare in Central Florida. Customers who come looking for these fruits may come from countries where these items are more common. For example, longans and lychee are originally from Southeast Asia, and I found out online that jaboticaba hails from Brazil.

Thompson also grows a few varieties of peaches via a program with the University of Florida - including a variety named UFO for its flat shape - and he has a you-pick nine-variety muscadine grape section in late summer, which I've written about before.

Thompson and I, along with his wife LaRay, met again on their farm to talk about a new unique fruit tree they now have available called the miracle fruit. The miracle fruit, originally from Africa, is a small red berry used as a kind of medicine for diabetics and for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. As someone with chemotherapy can develop a metallic taste in their mouth, eating miracle fruit helps restore their taste buds. WebMD reports that the fruit helps make sour foods taste sweet, so it's considered a natural sweetener. That's apparently how the fruit earned its miracle monicker.

When Thompson learned of miracle fruit, "I knew we had to have it," he said. Thompson enthusiastically spoke of the miracle fruit's benefits as well as the health benefits of some of the other fruits that he sells.

In addition to purchasing 100 small packages of miracle fruit, he also ordered miracle fruit trees both to grow on the farm and to sell to customers for about $30 a piece. The trees are starting to bud now and should have ready-to-eat fruit in a few weeks. Those trees are a bargain if you have a real interest in miracle fruit, as it's not a cheap item. Each berry can retail $2 in some places, said Thompson. He's selling berries for $1 each. Thompson and his wife were nice enough to let me try one. As I moved it around my mouth and then spit out the seed, it tasted slightly sour but then transformed into a sweet, natural licorice flavor that lingered in my mouth for a few hours.

While visiting with the Thompsons, a customer came by to ask if they had plums and to inquire about fertilizer for his peach tree. Thompson didn't have plums but did have the fertilizer, and he chatted with the customer about what local hardware and grower stores had available. Thompson seemed to know exactly what the stores have available.

As if these exotic offerings weren't enough, Thompson also sells supplies for koi ponds and 16 varieties of dragon fruit plants, which he says buyers will snatch up quickly when in season. Because of his interest in exotic fruits not commonplace in the Tampa area, it's probably obvious that Thompson's not above taking risks; he told me how he once lost $35,000 trying to grow dragon fruit in a larger quantity than he does now.

If you're shaky on the prospect of growing exotic fruit in your backyard, just keep in mind what LaRay Thompson told me. "If our customers have any questions, they can just call us," she said.