Memories of India

 

Special to the Miami Herald

Laura Mani is tiny but tough. Living in Homestead close to the Everglades, she recently shot a 12-foot python that was threatening her chickens.

It takes courage to do what she’s done — including moving to this 12-acre plot from Dallas, Texas, in 2003. There she was a systems engineer at Microsoft, where she had worked for 13 years. “I had made enough money and I thought it was time to pursue what I really like to do full time,” she says.

When she bought this land to create a hobby farm, it was completely covered with cane grass two stories tall. “It felt like a different world out here,” she says.

Over the years, she has replaced the natural vegetation with winter melon, cucumber-like tindora, fresh turmeric and rare potatoes called koorka that grow on top of the ground on vines with purple blooms.

These are just some of the fruits and vegetables that she’s planted to remind herself of growing up in Kerala in southern India. Her father was a banker who also owned tea and rubber plantations.

Mani was forbidden to work outdoors, but she watched the workmen do their planting and harvesting. She fell in love with growing things.

So, when she left Microsoft, she wanted to live in South Florida where the climate would allow her to cultivate her beloved jackfruit and other tropical trees from home.

She bought this piece of land in 2001. Her first job was to cut the cane grass. Then she needed to dig trenches in the coral rock. She explains that in this area, there are only six inches of soil. In order to grow trees, you need to make a hole in the rock that’s below the soil.

As the rock was carved out, it was broken into pebbles that were returned to the trenches. These pebbles, mixed with more than 300 truckloads of compost, form the substrate for anything that grows here.

In March 2005, Mani planted 300 jackfruit trees on five acres. But in October, Hurricane Wilma hit the area hard. “I went outside to find everything was gone,” she says.

That didn’t stop her.

She replanted 60 jackfruit trees. Over the years she’s kept planting — fruit and vegetables not only from India but also Australia, Africa, Nicaragua and many Asian countries.

In order to survey this garden, Mani hops into a beige two-seater golf cart with a tray on the back for carrying whatever she harvests. A cover over the cab protects her from low-hanging foliage as she whirs between the trenches of trees, vines and shrubs.

When she is ready to set out, she trills “Here, here,” and seven peacocks come running. They are like pets, even snuggling into her lap.

Her two pure-bred German shepherds, Fluffy and Luna, join the parade as we set out. “I am so happy to see the plants growing,” she says. “It is awesome to go around and find out what has changed or ripened.”

As we stop at each plant, she tells its story, offers a bit of its history or explains why it’s a good food source or has medicinal value.

For example, the asoka tree’s leaves are yellow-green but its new foliage is pink. When it flowers, it will be covered in red blooms.

Mani tells of the Hindu god Sita, who in ancient times was abducted by Rama. Hidden in a forest, she sat under this tree to give herself peace of mind. As a result, the asoka is known as the tree of peace in India.

We move on to view rope bamboo. She got it from her cousin, a botanical scientist who discovered it in the forest of Kerala. It looks like rope that, when young and pliant, can be coiled and bent. But as it matures, the ropes can grow to five inches in diameter and become set in their ways.

“I believe it is the first bamboo of its kind brought into this country,” she says. “Most people don’t even know about it.”

Many of the plants, including the rope bamboo, Mani brought from her homeland as seeds or as small seedlings in her carry-on luggage. “I had the paperwork so the customs people would look at what I had and either confiscate it or let me pass,” she says.

The emblica tree dangles green fruit that look like gooseberries. Mani assures me that when they are ripe they are high in iron. Take a bite of one and it will taste bitter. However after you finish it, your mouth will taste sweet for a long time.

“It’s an acquired taste. But Indian people go crazy when they know emblica is around,” she says.

A tall tree with shiny leaves proves to be a black sapote. Mani has been known to climb this tree to harvest its fruit. “I’m like a monkey in a tree,” she says, recalling how as a child of 10 years, she fell from the top of a 40-foot tree and saved herself by grabbing a branch on the way down.

One of Mani’s most beloved trees is the moringa, which is nicknamed the drumstick tree because of the shape of its seed pods. Its leaves are highly nutritious. You can also eat its dainty white flowers. Mani uses them both in omelets.

She points out a ripe green luffa hanging on a vine. This is the edible variety that looks like a large summer squash. But some have been there long enough to dry out, and their skins turn brown. She takes one of these, cracks and pries off its skin; and shakes it so shiny black seeds fall to the ground. When she’s done, she holds a luffa in her hand. Yes, the kind you’ll find at your next spa treatment.

Later she jumps out of the cart and runs through the thicket. It looks like she’s headed for a big black tire sitting under a tree. But it turns out to be a three-foot-long black pumpkin that probably weighs 50 pounds. The diminutive woman who grew it from seed is not sure she’ll be able to harvest the pumpkin when it’s ready.

Down a trench, long mulberries and passion fruit ripen side by side on trees. Mani picks some ripe berries, each about three inches long and curling like a fuzzy red caterpillar. They are good now but when truly mature they will be about four inches long and very sweet.

She takes a small knife from the cart and slices off the top of a neon orange passion fruit in order to suck out the sweet gray pearls inside. This is one of 10 varieties that she cultivates.

“You can eat anything off my trees whenever you like,” she says adding that she never sprays them. Instead she lets the good bugs eat the bad. She thinks her peacocks also may help dispose of a few insects.

As we pass through the stands of papaya, she grabs one of the two machetes she keeps in the cab and whacks the branches that are in her way.

She also uses the machete to cut a hand of plump green finger bananas out of the tree. She explains that they will turn sweeter if harvested and left to ripen on the counter. She tosses the hand in the back of the cart and sets off for home.

Mani tends her garden seven days a week. Her day often starts at 6 a.m. when, with a cup of tea in hand, she calls her peacocks and her dogs to go for a stroll. At 8 p.m., she’s still outdoors tending to her garden.

“When I plant a tree and it flowers or its fruit ripens, that’s what makes me happy,” she says.

Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley can be reached at debhartz@att.net.

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