Robert Knight Jr. — Bob to his friends and family — spent a lifetime bringing tropical fruits to Florida, and trying to improve the taste of each one.
“He had a carambola tree in his garden with the best carambolas I have ever tried,” said longtime friend Maxine Long.
Ironically, Knight hated carambolas and never ate them, according to his cousin Karen Bodenhamer. His favorite tropical fruits were mangos, she said.
A retired researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Knight died Sunday. He was 85. His health had been deteriorating since he had a bad fall in his garden in 2008.
A descendent of some of the first Spanish settlers in Florida, Knight grew up in Tampa, where his family owned citrus groves.
“Bob was wonderful to tour the Everglades with,” said Bodenhamer, his nearest living relative. “He knew every native plant and bird.”
After his service in Europe during World War II, for which he received the Combat Infantry Badge, Knight earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from the University of Florida and a doctorate in biology from the University of Virginia.
He was hired by the U.S.D.A. in 1958 and worked for more than three decades at the Subtropical Horticulture Research Station on Old Cutler Road.
Colleague Raymond Schnell called Knight one of the most knowledgeable researchers of tropical fruits. “He was one of the reasons I came to work in Miami at the U.S.D.A.,” Schnell said.
Knight spent decades exploring the world, collecting varieties of tropical fruits and introducing them into Florida, hoping to diversify the diets and gardens of Americans.
His work with lychee resulted in selections that produce fruit more consistently and have better quality than commercially grown varieties, notes the U.S.D.A. Research Service website. Seeds Knight collected in Malaysia gave rise to the sweet and juicy “Arkin” carambola.
When Hurricane Andrew destroyed part of the research station in 1992, Knight helped lead a successful community effort to persuade Congress to keep the center open.
Fortunately, his house in Homestead, where he grew his favorite plants in a two-acre garden, was largely undamaged by Andrew thanks to a hammock of trees surrounding it, said Bodenhamer.
After retiring, Knight lectured at the University of Florida Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead.
No memorial services are planned, but Knight asked this his ashes be returned to nature. His ashes will be scattered in the hammock that protected his home.