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The fruits of his labor

The fruits of six continents flourish in Paul Zmoda's backyard farm.

Asian loquat blooms in early spring. Fall brings figs. In summertime, he plucks Chinese tea leaves.

"My goals really are to find new crops for Florida," said Zmoda, a research scientist and microbiologist, who describes himself as a collector of world fruits. "You can't just go to Home Depot and pick up a tea plant on your way home."

"You're not gonna ever, unless I get my way," he said.

At Flatwoods Fruit Farm, his niche market thrives on olive trees, tropical berries, cactus fruit and sunquats _ fruits not typically found on grocery shelves or nurseries in Florida.

"This is something you probably won't see very often," he said, pointing to tree heavy with amber fruit from Southeast Asia, called starfruit for their distinctive shape.

From South America, he cultivates white sapotes, baseball-sized delicacies tasting of vanilla custard, and Surinam cherries, a pumpkin-shaped red berry.

Persimmons from Zimbabwe and Australian macadamia nuts round out the palate.

Unlike traditional farmers, who plant in rows, Zmoda arranges crops in a hexagon to maximize space at his 4-acre farm. Aluminum labels describe plants by common and scientific names.

Each branch tells a story.

The seeds for a loquat tree, whose orange fruit are related to apples, came from Israel. But branches now sprout Spanish and Italian varieties, grafted onto the tree from a sample that friends imported.

"I don't want to plant any more trees, because I am running out of space," Zmoda said. "So I just kind of add on."

His first farming experiment was a childhood prank. Growing up in New Jersey, Zmoda would play tricks on his father by grafting purple plums onto his dad's peach trees.

Later living in North Tampa, Zmoda began experimenting with vegetable gardens. When he grew bored with herbs, he delved into bananas in the early 1980s.

"After many years of bananas, I was like, "Well, I know about bananas, what else can I find out about?' "

Today, Zmoda grows 10 varieties of bananas at the farm in Riverview, which he purchased eight years ago. He has bought the house in front, but still maintains the North Tampa home by Busch Boulevard.

Flatwoods Fruit Farm grosses about $3,000 is annual sales. With no employees, it is as much hobby as business _ but Zmoda is banking on his discovery of a rare, red bunch grape.

If vineyards like it, he could retire from his night job at a Tampa laboratory.

But Zmoda is used to seasonal setbacks. The Chinese tea trees he planted as seeds 10 years ago today stand just knee-high. A dozen olive trees are thriving, but the branches have not yet borne fruit. His stubborn quest to sprout an avocado has yielded only a barren stump.

That's fine with Zmoda, who sells by appointment only. His farm is registered, but there is no sign in front. Clients know how to find him with their unusual requests for capers and jakfruit, a delicacy of Southeast Asia that can grow as large as 100-pounds, he said.

In the meantime, he eats off his harvests and gives a lot of his fruit away.

"I bring it to work, "Eat this. Eat that,"' he said. "I'm a fruit pusher."

Flatwoods Fruit Farm

WHAT: Rare and native fruits, biblical plants, custom grafting; prices up to $50 per plant.

WHERE: 11009 Riverview Drive, Riverview.

HOURS: By appointment only.

CONTACT INFO: LIR1123aol.com or 932-2469.

Samples from Zmoda's farm can be found at Tampa Bay Chapter of the Rare Fruit Council table at the University of South Florida Annual Spring Plant Festival in April.

Zmoda's guide to picking

STARFRUIT: You know they are ripe when the translucent fruit turns a deep brownish yellow and hangs so heavily from the tree that it falls off at the touch.

PUMMELO: This ancestor of the grapefruit is a delicacy in some Asian markets. Harvest when basketball sized with a canary-yellow peel. For the most juicy eating, leave the fruit sitting for several weeks, then peel and break apart the plum-colored fruit with your hands.

CHINESE TEA: Pluck the tender, new growth of tea plant. Allow to dry. Grind and brew.

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