Eleven million people visited Parrot Jungle in its first 50 years — a lot of eyes marveling at the handiwork of its main horticulturalist for many of those years.
In total, Nathan “Nat” DeLeon, who died at 87 on Jan. 28, served as the Pinecrest landmark’s horticulturalist and bromeliad expert for more than 35 years.
For DeLeon, and the South Miami-Dade attraction (now Pinecrest Gardens), it was a family affair. DeLeon married the late Eileen Scherr, who he met in marketing class at the University of Miami in 1953 after serving in the Navy during World War II. Scherr’s parents Franz and Louise founded Parrot Jungle in 1936 on 20 acres of cypress and oak hammock.
DeLeon, who was born in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania on March 18, 1927, was in his element. While in school he did yard work. “He liked plants and started learning more and more about them and started developing his favorite things,” said his son, Robert DeLeon.
Never miss a local story.
DeLeon delighted in crossing various plants. “A high percentage of times they came out really nice, a lot of trial and error. He had to know all the plants because of his position at Parrot Jungle,” his son said.
Some of his hybridizing paid off, such as his early development of commercial evergreen herbs known as Aglaonemas. In 1956, he began growing bromeliads and a year later began hybridizing the plants.
“He wanted people to develop an appreciation for bromeliads and helped inspire other people who hybridized bromeliads … in warmer climates like South Florida and the Caribbean where they are easy to grow,” his son said.
DeLeon was also a co-founder and the first president of the Bromeliad Society of South Florida, director and three-time president of the Bromeliad Society International, founded the Palm Seed Bank and taught and lectured at nearby Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden for eight years.
Along with his sons Robert and Donald he created another family business with the opening of the original DeLeon’s Bromeliad World in 1980 across from Norman Brothers Produce on Southwest 87th Avenue. There are now two locations, in Homestead and Mt. Dora.
“He offered us the nursery and we knew absolutely nothing,” Robert DeLeon recalls. Dad was patient. After all, family and plants were the two big loves of his life according to his family.
“He spoon-fed us until we could do it on our own and he didn’t have any problem doing it because he thought this was something special.”
DeLeon is survived by his sons Robert, Richard and Donald and three grandchildren. A celebration of life will be held at 6 p.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday at Banyon Bowl at Pinecrest Gardens, 11000 South Red Rd., Pinecrest.
Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.