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Rural Paradise

From left, Fran Dunford, mother, Darlene Caple, and sister Belinda Minatree with the rare Grewia or Star Flower.

Darlene and Russell Caple have enjoyed their four acre homestead, part of a family compound, for most of their 28 years of marriage. At first they lived there in a trailer, later built their house, and recently added a pool and spa.

Darlene and her mother both worked in the family's nurseries for many years, but pulling plants and driving the delivery truck was not like raising the plants to maturity that she has been enjoying since she retired.

"I like unusual plants," she says, "and plants that are marked down and need a home." Much of her collection comes from her sharp shopping.

"I got that Australian tree fern about two years ago for $3. It was in a large pot but all brown. You don't want to let those dry out." Now it is four feet high and wide and thriving.

A nuseryman in Plant City was giving away white wisteria plants because, he said, "They won't bloom here." Darlene's is blooming now.

"It is a grafted plant and took three years or more to bloom, but it was worth the wait. The buds are pink, but the fragrant flowers open white." She also rescues dogs and birds and her dogs enjoy the freedom of the front pasture.

There are long stretches of fences for vines, one of which is covered with a species of passionflower that has beautiful lavender flowers and much fruit that turns purple and falls to the ground when ripe. "I just cut them in half and scoop out the fruit with a spoon," she says. Some varieties need hand pollination (hers does not) and all are rampant growers.

A bush she got last summer was marked "Forsythia". This spring the branches were covered with yellow flowers before the leaves appeared. "It didn't mind the winter at all," she says. Of course not. I recognized the leaves. It really is the one we grew up north with the golden flowers that were a harbringer of spring to the winter weary. The Caples are Florida natives who can only imagine what forsythia in bloom meant to the winter weary northerners. I had no idea this would grow here. Whoopee! We may have to go north to find plants or bring home cuttings from our travels. She thinks she got hers at a Home Depot.

This staghorn was given to the Caples by Russell's grandfather 26 years ago. One year it won first prize and the Award of Merit at the Strawberry Festival. They cover it on frosty nights. That is new growth at the top.

One of her favorite plants is an evergreen shrub, Grewia caffra or Star Flower that most of the people at the USF plant sale, myself included, had never seen and neither the experts there nor Darlene herself has been able to propagate by either seeds or cuttings. But she took some cuttings to her husband's uncle, Donny Caple, of Nine Pines nursery, 2007 Cork Road (north off of Thonotosassa Road from Plant City), and he managed to get some started.

We met this talented and dedicated man. His nursery is small and so are his prices. He is there working every day except from 12 to 2 and on Sundays.

Darlene Caple is a plant person who never passes by a nursery or the garden store. Her mother Fran Dunford, who also worked in a nursery for many years, had come to help her. Her sister Belinda Minatree painted several of the statues that decorate the Caple garden and pool area. They make a great team. "When I find a bunch of plants marked down, I call all my friends and tell them," says Caple.

Yet she adds to her collection with discretion and fine designing skills. The entire place has a peaceful, uncrowded feeling that belies the work that has obviously gone into it. Besides the passion flowers, other edibles include Barbados cherries, several kinds of citrus trees, and a mulberry with a beautiful shape.

Caple also raises birds: macaws, conures that she says make excellent pets for less cost, and a blue ringneck parakeet. "They are like potato chips. You can't stop with just one." She brought one of them out to eat mulberries with her, but in fear of a passing hawk, tied the branches to the ground. They remain nicely arched.

On the shed where near where family and visitors park their cars is this collection of teapots, found at flea markets for .25cents to $2.

Her rescued dogs enjoy the freedom of a pasture of their own, with this white wisteria blooming on the fence.