DAWSON -- When Smithville Police Chief Artie Gardner saw an unusual purple leaf under the banana tree in the front yard of his Church Street home here, he thought at first someone had thrown litter on his property.
But when he investigated further -- by gazing skyward -- Gardner was surprised to see a bunch of 2- to 5-inch bananas growing on the tree.
Since then, another bunch of sunshine-yellow bananas has emerged from a purple pod on the tree, and another pod hangs close by, ready to expose its fruit.
"My brother (Robert) came by and told me he'd gotten some banana trees and asked me if I wanted some," Artie Gardner, the 62-year-old chief of the four-person Smithville Police Department, said. "I told him to give me one, but he said I had to have two."
Gardner had the perfect spot for one of his trees. A large oak in front of his home had blown over during a storm the previous year ("It tore up the front of the house," Gardner said.), and he'd cleared the tree's remains and ground its stump. He decided to plant one of his new banana trees in the space where the oak had been and the other in his backyard.
"The tree in front grew pretty good during the first year, but then it started to die down this summer," he said. "My brother told me I had to cut it back, so he came over and helped me cut the tree down. That did the trick ... The tree took off."
Since pruning the banana tree last May, it has grown to a height of some 12 feet and is now bearing fruit. A local gardening expert says the tree is a rarity in this area.
"That's not typical at all," said Justin Powell, the manager of Lawn Barber Nursery on U.S. Highway 82 in Leesburg. "There are only certain types of banana trees that will bear fruit in this zone. The chief obviously got a rare hybrid variety.
"A true banana tree is a very tropical plant, and we have too short a hot season for it to grow fruit. If I heard about a plant like that, my first question would be where did you get it, because I'd like to get my hands on one."
Gardner, who takes care of the yard work at his Dawson home, knew his fruit-bearing banana tree was unusual, but he didn't know how rare it was.
"It's funny," he said, "but the second tree -- the one in the backyard -- hasn't really grown at all. I don't know if the fruit on my tree will be edible, but I'm going to keep a close eye on it to see what happens."
Gardner said he plans to wrap the fruit on his tree this weekend
against the near-freezing temperatures expected.