PARRISH -- Those who spend time at Pete Ray's Parrish home quickly learn how much he enjoys plants.
"Ever since I was a boy of 8, I was planting seeds and watching with interest when they came up," said the 81-year-old Ray, a lawyer, real estate investor and former engineer who worked at Cape Canaveral from 1954 to 1967.
Ray's green thumb benefits Manatee County as he cultivates fruit trees all year, including red pineapple, green mulberry, lychee, tropical apricot, mango and avocado, for the Manatee Rare Fruit Council's 25th Annual Rare Fruit Tree Sale.
The popular one-day annual event, featuring more than 4,000 plants and trees such as papaya, passion fruit, guava, figs, kumquat, persimmon and many others for the "silver anniversary sale," from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday at the Bradenton Area Convention Center in Palmetto.
Besides offering free admission, the sale offers free parking and free expert advice and assistance, said Betty Kearns, tree sale chairwoman.
On Tuesday, Ray, going on 30 years as a member of the Rare Fruit Council, handed a visitor an inch-long, green, noodle-looking piece of fruit from a green mulberry tree. It looked like a caterpillar.
"Try it," Ray gently coaxed.
Once in the mouth, the cotton-candy textured berry yielded an unforgettable burst of juicy plum-type taste.
Surprises like this make rare fruit trees an adventure, Ray said.
Later, a black mulberry yielded its own full-bodied berry taste.
Although there was no fruit to harvest on Ray's atemoya tree, Ray raved about it.
"The fruit weighs a pound when ripe and the edible part has the consistency of custard," Ray said. "It's very sweet and delicious, but because it has such a short shelf life, it's rarely seen in grocery stores. The flesh is white and the fruit turns to a yellow-green when ready to harvest. You don't eat the skin. You peel it."
Ray, who moved to Manatee County from Miami in 1997, waxed poetic about his Burns avocado tree, which produces a nicely oily avocado that will continue to be good on the tree from December through May, when other avocado varieties are out of season.
Ray, a member of the Miami chapter of the Rare Fruit Council before coming to Manatee, also has a strawberry tree strain known as a Panama Berry tree, which produces little berries he puts in his cereal.
"They are sweet and not very tart and have a texture like a soft pear," Ray said. "But they don't taste like a pear."
No visit to Ray's home is complete without a tour of his roughly nine different mango varieties, many of which will be for sale at the show.
"I love this Keitt Mango," Ray said. "If I had to have just have one mango, the Keitt would be it. It's resistant to diseases. It's big and tasty."
Kearns said all the plants will be "reasonably" priced at the show.
"We will have a wide variety of citrus trees as well," Kearns said. "Besides unusual tropical fruit trees, there will be bushes, vines, herbs, spices, the Council's specially formulated 'Fruitilizer' plant food, cookbooks, honey and more."
If past years are an indication, a line of people will stretch around the Convention Center an hour before the sale opens, Ray said.
The nonprofit Manatee Rare Fruit Council's mission is to introduce, propagate and distribute the many rare tropical and sub-tropical fruits that thrive in the Southwest Florida climate, Kearns said.
A portion of the proceeds from Sunday's tree sale will go for the upkeep of the Premier Rare Fruit Tree display, which the club developed and maintains at Palma Sola Botanical Park, Kearns said.
The club meets at 7 a.m. the second Monday each month at the Manatee County Fairgrounds. Go to mrfc.org,
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, Ext. 6686.