The Glorious Guava
Guava is the sweet, seductive perfume that flavors many of South Florida’s favorite foods: pastelitos, ice cream, batidos, flans and cheesecakes; sauces for pork, poultry, shrimp and beef; smoothies, cocktails, even craft beer.
Preserves, pastes, marmalades, jam and nectar are essential to the Cuban pantry, although the source of the fruits today is primarily Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Colombia and India. At the turn of the 20th century, however, guava was a hot commodity for pioneers preserving and selling the exotic fruit preserves to tourists and locals.
For more history, we turned to tropical fruit enthusiast Jorge J. Zaldivar, whose company, PG Tropicals, sources locally grown, handpicked fruits from Guavonia Guava Grove in Homestead’s Redland. He has sold his purees, marmalades, jams, jellies and products to businesses, including Azucar Ice Cream, La Fresa Francesa, Doce Provisions, Exquisito Chocolates, and the Burger Museum. His passion for guava has led him to discoveries of its importance to pioneers in Florida.
“The history of the guava in Florida dates back more than 160 years ago, when Col. H.V. Snell brought the fruit and seeds from Cuba to Sara Sota (today’s Sarasota) and Mantee on the Gulf Coast,” says Zaldivar. “There are endless accounts of guava trees growing wild in the oddest places all around town, in and near Hialeah and everywhere else.” In Coconut Grove, lawyer Albion Simmons and his wife, Dr. Eleanor Galt Simmons, made guava jelly and wine in a building known as the Jelly Factory on their property, now home to The Kampong, where plant explorer David Fairchild lived. Simmons sold a ton of guava jelly to Henry Flagler for his Royal Poinciana Hotel in Palm Beach, and also shipped guava jelly to London in the late 1800s.
In his 1906 book, Life and Adventures in South Florida, Andrew P. Canova described his visit to Miami’s Fort Dallas at the mouth of the Miami River: “Here we saw many nice frame houses among the cocoa palm trees. … The guava bushes were full of delicious fruit, and no one can say that we did not do them ample justice. Next to a peach, I think the guava is the most delightful fruit under the sun.”
Guavonia in Coral Gables
“Throughout Miami’s early years, the notion of community building is connected to the guava,” says Zaldivar. “In 1898, the Solomon Merrick family moved from Duxbury, Massachusetts, to a modest wood shack and wild guava trees.” The family named the property Guavonia, where young George Merrick would pick guavas and transport them by mule-driven wagon to Capt. Simmons. In the High Pines section of what’s now South Miami, Mr. and Mrs. William Laesch’s property had a large guava grove. Their 1901 house doubled as a guava jelly factory.
On the Miami River, near the NW 27th Avenue bridge, was Richardson’s Musa Isle fruit farm at the turn of the 20th century. He may have formed the first farming co-op in Miami by encouraging neighboring farmers to have their fruit processed at his canning facility. One of his prized products was guava jelly. Boats from the Royal Palm Hotel would come down the Miami River with their guests at the grove. In 1907 the grove was sold and became the Musa Isle Seminole Indian Village.
Miami Fruit Industries became a major producer of Florida preserves, marmalades, jellies and jams, and specialists in guava jelly. “Headquartered in modern-day Midtown on 2nd Ave., with a multi-story warehouse and production facility in Hialeah, they were able to maintain a guava grove in Indiantown with advances in transportation,” says Zaldivar. “By the 1930s, the Miami Herald was covering the booming industry of crystallized fruits and marmalades,” including the Redland Tropical Candy Company, the Florida Fruit & Preserving Co. located near the City of Miami cemetery, and Dr. Peterson’s Bonita Fruit Preserving Co., in what’s now Little Haiti.
Redland Guava Today
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Caribbean fruit fly was introduced to Florida, creating problems for growers. By 2000, commercial acreage expanded to around 300 acres, and in 2015, total guava production was close to 600 acres, with more than 90 percent grown in Miami-Dade.
In addition to researching guava’s illustrious past in South Florida, Zaldivar is on a mission to bring the goodness of Redland guavas, instead of crops sourced outside of the U.S., to the marketplace today. “Guavonia Guava Grove has over 15 distinct heirloom guavas, each with its own flavor,” he says. “Long live Redland guava!”