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Exotic fruit tree fans jam convention center

PALMETTO — Rebecca Robinson, of Terra Ceia, pursed her lips and tried mightily to describe the sweetness of the Chinese fruit called lychee. You could tell it defied description.

“All I can say is it’s one of those foods once you start you can’t stop eating,” Robinson said of the grape-like fruit with a sweet and slightly tart center.

Since it’s not a fruit you can easily find in local markets, Robinson decided to buy a lychee tree and harvest her own.

It just so happened that the annual fruit tree sale, featuring exotic trees like lychee, was being held Sunday, hosted by the Manatee County Chapter of Rare Fruit Council International, Inc.

Robinson, who settled on a Haak Yip lychee (pronounced lie chee) that cost $20, was among a crowd estimated at 5,000 which packed the Manatee Convention Center.

“Lychee grows in a soft shell that looks like a red walnut but feels like a grape,” said club member Peter Kearns, one of roughly 25 club members on hand to help buyers like Robinson. “You can eat it like a dessert or put it in a salad.”

Exotic fruit tree fans like Robinson helped produce an all-time record sale revenue for the local club.

Near the 4 p.m. closing time, the sale had taken in $59,000, easily out-pacing the $55,000 previous record last year, said sale Director Pete Ray.

There were 4,000 trees this year and most were gone by sale’s end.

“That this happened in the middle of a bad economy tells you people want to plant trees in their backyards,” Kearns said. “It also tells you that many people lost fruit trees in last winter’s freezes.”

The trees ranged from $1 to $200.

As in past years, tree lovers formed a line that reached around the building before the 10 a.m. opening. Once the doors opened, there was a stampede to find the best deals, Kearns said.

“People were packed together amid a sea of green,” Kearns added.

Bradenton’s Jason and Vanessa Turner and their children, HannahJane, 13, Ethyn, 11 and Noah, 8, came out of the sale with a lemon and a banana tree.

“I have wanted a lemon tree since I moved here from Rhode Island three years ago,” Vanessa Turner said.

“The banana tree is because the kids eat bananas like crazy,” Jason Turner said.

It will take the Turners 18 months to see any fruit from their trees and Robinson will have to wait three years for those sweet lychees.

“It’s worth it,” Robinson said.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.