West Palm man’s dream garden still recovering from Hurricane Irma


Gene Joyner gingerly leads the way through the tangle of rare plants and trees known as Unbelievable Acres, his private botanical garden that’s still recovering from a brutal punch by Hurricane Irma.

He shuffles slowly these days since diabetes began numbing his feet, yet he can’t stop educating visitors about the plants he loves and has dedicated his life to introducing to South Florida.

He points out a calabash gourd tree, the yellow blooms of the West Indian shower tree and thick, new canes of golden bamboo. A musky sweetness from night-blooming draceana plants still hovers in the air.

He tells a visitor to pull up a clutch of calathea to take home. Hundreds of Palm Beach County gardens began with similar gifts.

RELATED: Palm Beach County’s public gardens

Long the county’s most famous gardener, Joyner retired after 35 years as a Palm Beach County Agriculture Extension agent and 30 years writing gardening columns for The Palm Beach Post.

He opened Unbelievable Acres in 1970 after buying 2.5 acres of his father’s cattle pasture, then led plant collecting trips to the Caribbean, Central and South America to create a densely-shaded rain forest in suburban West Palm Beach, near Jog Road and Southern Boulevard.

But that half century dream lies around him, decomposing in unfamiliar sunlight, courtesy of an Irma-spawned twister.

“That was a 35-year-old kapok tree, about 70-feet tall and 80-feet wide,” said Joyner, of a huge trunk on the ground, with chain-sawed sections removed where it fell on the garden’s paths. “After the storm, it looked like a giant hand plucked it out of the ground, like you would a carrot.”

Unbelievable, indeed.

Huge trees — a silk floss whose trunk sports wicked-looking spines, a shaving brush tree, 70-foot pines — crashed down, taking layers of understory plants with them.

Half his rainforest’s canopy was smashed.

He pauses at a sunny spot, leaning on a piece from a pole saw he uses as a cane. When he falls, which he has several times, he can no longer get up.

“You couldn’t see the sun in here,” he says.

But perhaps, not for long. A group of volunteers, aided by a grant to buy new trees, is bringing the garden - and it must be said - its creator, back to life.

But they still need more help. Much more help.

Joyner spent the night of Irma’s visit on September 10 at his home on one side of the garden. He could hear the trees falling. Four landed on his house, but did little damage. The center of the garden was almost unharmed. But the edges looked like a giant blender had descended.

“It was the worst storm we’ve ever had in here,” Joyner said.

At 71, he wasn’t sure he had the heart or resources to repair the devastation. The non-profit garden survives on donations and admissions.

“I could hear it in his voice,” said Barbara Hadsell, a member of the Wellington Garden Club who called Joyner after reading about his garden’s damage in the Palm Beach Post. “He said, ‘I got the trees off my house, we’re now to our last $200. I don’t know what I’m going to do’.”

Joyner, who used to work 60 hours a week advising residents on gardening then spend another 40 hours in the garden he started in 1970, can’t do much of the work himself anymore. He relies on the garden’s board members and the county’s master gardeners like Hadsell, whom he trained over more than three decades.

Donations paid for a few days work from professional crews, but the rest of the work is being done by volunteers with axes, loppers, clippers and tree saws. One is his 77-year-old sister, Elaine Pennewell.

They cleared paths, hauled debris and placed new picnic tables under a spreading mahoe tree where visitors can have lunch or relax in the shade.

“Gene needs help and he’s not good at asking for it or for money,” said Jane Sample, a garden board member, as she sawed through a branch of the downed kapok tree. “So it’s up to us.”

“I would hate to see this place closed,” said volunteer Teresa Cecil, a Costa Rican native who now lives in Wellington, who was hauling debris. “The rainforest here looks like home to me.”

Hadsell got a $4,000 grant from the National Garden Club Natural Disaster Fund to replant the tropical fruit trees Joyner loves.

It was enough to bring back Joyner’s excitement. He went through the catalog from Lake Worth’s Excalibur Fruit Trees, checking out new varieties of bananas, plantains, jaboticaba, mangoes and jakfruit, a tree whose heavy fruit springs from the trunk.

“Believe it or not, there are still some mangoes I don’t have,” said Joyner, who has dozens of varieties.

Hadsell enlisted 3rd, 4th and 5th graders in the Greenacres afterschool programs to plant the smallest trees. Scout troops are scheduled to plant the larger trees on Florida Arbor Day on January 20.

Joyner loves discovering new plants, whether in a Costa Rica forest or a nursery catalog.

As the tree canopy grows back, he’s looking at new varieties of Ti plants and some red, hot pink and yellow anthuriums.

But a garden takes time. He hopes he has enough of it left to see his garden restored.

“This is my life’s work,” he says. “Now I have to live long enough to see it grow back.”



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