The magenta blooms of the Brazilian cloak tower
over Gene Joyner, a contrast to the orange and yellow
of the helconia behind him. He served as Palm Beach
County/University of Florida Extension’s urban
horticulturist for 35 years.
Photos by Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star
By Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley
Driving down the gravel lane in West Palm Beach, you arrive at a chain-link fence covered with bamboo matting. You can’t help but note the signs warning you to “beware of dog” and avoid the “very bad dogs.”
But don’t worry.
Once a month the gate is opened for guided tours of the forest you’ll find inside. In fact, this is the only “working” tropical rainforest in the United States, according to Gene Joyner who started planting it in 1970. Today a mile of trails wander through 2½ acres of dense greenery.
“I started this project from scratch,” he says. “It was built from the ground up to look exactly like what you’d see in the rainforest.”
Joyner’s Unbelievable Acres Botanic Garden is home to more than 1,200 kinds of plants from all over the world.
“I figured when I got too old to travel I could step outdoors and enjoy my own rainforest,” says Joyner, 66, who grew up on the two-acre property next door. His father had a nursery and Joyner continues to use it for that purpose.
He started planting after getting a degree in botany from the University of Florida. There were only two pine trees on the property. Many of the trees that today loom over 40 feet tall started out as only cuttings or even seeds.
Larger than a football, sausage fruit hang at eye level along a path in the garden.
The first thing you’ll probably notice in the untamed yard is the sausage tree. Joyner planted its seed 39 years ago and today it rises 65 feet in the air. He hand-pollinates the velvety red flowers to produce the fruit that hangs from strings like sausages in a deli and can weigh up to 30 pounds.
Following the soft and springy mulch paths, you wind your way through the dense underbrush enjoying the dappled light and the aroma of fresh earth. “Sometimes I think you need a machete to keep the paths clear,” Joyner says.
This variegated salvia provides a riot of colors in the garden.
He points to palm trees that he started from coconuts 35 years ago. A giant hibiscus has 14 vertical trunks that grow southeast, south, west and then north. Joyner calls this the “traveler tree” because it grows in a circle.
And he takes great pride in his shingle tree that was 6 feet tall in 1972 but today measures 90 feet. It’s been certified as the largest specimen in Florida. Joyner tells us that in rural parts of India the large, tough leaves are used to shingle roofs.
As the sun filters through the thick canopy, it looks like spotlights illuminating massive leaves camouflaging the trunks of the trees. These vines don’t harm the trees, but need to climb in the forest so they can get light. The oversized green leaves of one named Swiss cheese philodendron have holes in them.
Young leaves and fruit begin to
form in the crown of a papaya tree.
On the ground, the leaves of bushes come in many shades. One of our favorites, the party time Joseph’s coat, has bright pink, green and cream leaves. And the yellow and green leaves of the pocket plant curl around to form a cup that holds water for insects. Of course, there also are plenty of colorful flowers. Angel wing begonia is named for the shape of its dark green leaves that contrast with its delicate pink flowers. And the dwarf wax ginger has a neon pink, cone-like flower.
Oh, and don’t forget the fruit trees. Joyner has more than 150 varieties, including his favorite — mangoes, of which he has 12 varieties.
“Just about any fruit you see at the supermarket I have growing here,” he says. And a whole lot more.
Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley is a certified master gardener who can be reached at email@example.com when she’s not digging in her yard.