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Andre Gooden has spent his whole life in Grand Cayman. In his lifetime, he’s watched his island develop from a rural, quiet island to a bustling tourist destination that’s visited by millions of people each year.

“It was a good experience because you got the best of both worlds: the simple island life and the fast-paced city life,” Andre said.

Growing up, Andre said he never knew how to answer the age-old question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” He went to school, did what he was supposed to do, and found jobs that helped make ends meet. Eventually, he ended up working as an engineer for one of the island’s telecom companies. He liked the job for the most part—he made good money and was good at the job.

However, those feelings of not really knowing what he wanted to do lingered. He felt his life was missing that inner peace. After seven years at the telecoms company, he decided it was time to do something new, so he quit his job determined to find his passion.

Andre began dabbling in light subsistence farming by growing an assortment of vegetables like carrots and cabbage in his yard. He liked working with his hands and the satisfaction of watching his crops grow. This was the “new” he’d been looking for—he’d found his peace.

After doing a little bit of internet searching, Andre invested more time and energy into his garden eventually turning it into a small farm. He knew he could turn it into a business and in only six months, after a lot of hard work and social media advertising, Charlito’s Greenhouse was born.

At first, Charlito’s Greenhouse was only able to provide produce to a few people at a time, but Andre wasn’t going to stop there. While he didn’t have nearly enough to supply stores, his crop quickly outgrew his space so he moved to West Bay to get more. With more space came more crops like broccoli, peppers, kale, and a variety of fruits (his favorite things to grow).

Over the next couple of years, Charlito’s Greenhouse grew and Andre diversified his crop selection. With new crops came new challenges and Andre realized he needed structures to grow and store new plants. Never one to back down from a challenge, he taught himself carpentry and built his own greenhouses. He found a natural talent in woodworking, and his work quickly gained attention.

Today, Andre’s custom carpentry is the most popular part of his business (it’s what attracted us to him!), and he spends most of his time building custom decks, greenhouses, garden beds, and sheds. While his first love will always be the farm, he says the carpentry gives him a sense of satisfaction different than that of the plants.

“Plants will do exactly what they’re supposed to do and you know exactly what you’ll get,” Andre said. “With the carpentry and woodwork you can create something no one has ever seen, something new...it comes from your own experiences.”

In many ways, Andre is changing the landscape of food production on Grand Cayman. When he came on the scene a few years ago, commercial farming in Grand Cayman was virtually non-existent and many locals hadn’t adopted their own farming practices. For years, Caymanians have relied on imports from South America or the United States for food, but Andre wants to change that.

Almost as soon as his business was blooming, Andre was in the local schools teaching children about farming. He teaches the basics, giving the kids a chance to dig in the dirt, plant their seeds, and watch the fruits of their labor grow. He hopes this will help kids realize just how easy farming on their island is and eventually help the island become less dependent on outside imports.

“It’s about showing people what we can do on our own,” Andre said.

If you’re interested in learning more about Andre and Charlito’s Greenhouse, you can visit him on Facebook or check out his Instagram.

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Learning about other cultures is a fascinating journey, and Cayman culture is worth the exploration. Take some time to see if you can find the following trees of cultural significance to the Cayman Islands and their products on your next trip to the island. (Make a scavenger hunt out of it!) Some produce literal fruits that are happily consumed, while others have been used to create essential products for the island. 

Ironwood Tree

There are common trees around the world called Ironwood, but the tree referred to as the Ironwood tree in Cayman is endemic to the Cayman Islands, important to the culture and unfortunately endangered. Used to build the framework for early homes (like Dovovan’s grandfather’s home), the wood of the tree is heavy, water resistant and termite proof. Ironwood was first used in Wattle and Daub construction and then throughout the years in various construction.

Where they grow: Dense forests such as the Ironwood Forest, Forest at Crystal Caves, and Mastic Reserve

Where you can see them in use:

nurse leila home
Nurse Leila’s home pictured above is a Wattle and Daub structure built with ironwood.

Another ironwood supported structure is the Old Savannah Schoolhouse built in 1940.

Silver Thatch Palm

Also used in the Wattle & Daub buildings (for roofs) of early settlers, the Silver Thatch Palm was used in a multitude of additional products, many with economical value, and is vastly significant to the history of the Cayman Islands. The Silver Thatch was weaved into ropes, hats, brooms, baskets, fans and much more. The thatched rope was in high demand from neighbors in Cuba and Jamaica and thereby created a roping industry that helped support the island. Because of it's impact, it's no surprise the Silver Thatch Palm is the national tree of the islands.

Where they grow: All over the island and especially present on the East End

Where you can find products: Try the Cayman Craft Market at The Waterfront in Georgetown or one of the local Farmers Markets for thatched products.

A Caymanian shows off a broom made of Silver Thatch in front of the plant itself in her yard.

Breadfruit Tree

The Breadfruit Tree has long been providing sustenance to those living on island. According to A Cayman Childhood Remembered by Jackie Bodden, a Breadfruit is “a large, round, usually seedless fruit with a starchy pulp. When cooked it tastes similar to an Irish potato.” The breadfruit is still a popular fruit today among Caymanians—in fact Lisa, our property manager, gifted me a breadfruit during my last trip to Cayman. She said that Caymanians love to eat breadfruit with fish, with gravy, with fried chicken, with anything!

Where they grow: All over the island, and grown in the yards of many residents.

Where you can find breadfruit: When in season you can buy breadfruit in local grocery stores, and some local restaurants such as Da Fish Shack in Georgetown or Vivine’s Kitchen in the East End.

Breadfruit growing on Lisa's tree.

two breadfruit

Ackee Tree

Speaking of what to eat breadfruit with, ackee and cod is another dish that Caymanians love to pair with the fruit. The Ackee tree bears a red fruit that can be toxic before it is ripe or when it is too old, so it’s important to get the fruit from a store or a local that knows when it is ready to eat. When ripe it’s full of many healthy nutrients. The meat of the ackee fruit looks similar to scrambled eggs, and has a slightly sweet and slightly bitter taste that is the perfect compliment to the codfish. The ackee and cod dish is especially popular for breakfast.

Where they grow: Grown in the yards of many residents, these trees became prevalent when Jamaicans migrated to Cayman in the 60's according to Roger Ebanks.

Where you can find ackee: Eat like a local and grab ackee and cod for breakfast at Full of Beans Cafe or Champion House II, both in Georgetown.

caymanian woman with her ackee tree
Mrs. Nettie, a local Caymanian, shows us an ackee tree in her yard.

Seagrape & Popnut Trees

Original homesteads in Grand Cayman were often shaded by seagrape and popnut trees. Popnut trees were also used in the making of Cayman catboats (along with mahogany and fiddlewood trees). Both trees tend to grow near the shore. The seagrape tree is known for its green leaves with red veining and the edible fruit that it bears (ask a local how to tell when seagrapes are ripe for eating). The popnut tree has yellow flowers that last only a day and turn maroon by the end of the day. It also has a brown leathery fruit bulb that resembles a nut.

Where they grow: Head to the sea and you’re sure to find one or both of these trees. You can enjoy the shade of seagrape and popnut trees at Smith’s Cove and many other beaches on Grand Cayman, including our very own beach here at CCC!

seagrape tree
Catch this seagrape tree by the swing here at CCC. There's also one by the boat shed on the other side of our beach.

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Today, we met a roadside produce salesman named Courtney. We were on our way back from the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, and his stand was on a remote, rural stretch of road between Bodden Town and George Town. We came around a curve, and I spotted the stand yelling, "Devon that looks like a good one" as we passed by. Thinking it was a gem we turned around, parked on the side of the road and walked up to the stand. As we approached Devon heard Hunter Hayes on the radio, and we immediately had an icebreaker. We laughed about Hunter Hayes and told the stand owner that the music he was listening to, country music, came from our region of the states. We introduced ourselves, and the stand owner told us his name was Courtney with a broad, white smile.

Courtney was so kind. He explained all of the exotic fruits to us; how to slice them, when to eat them and what to eat them with. When he found out that I had never tried starfruit he picked one up and started cutting without any concern of being paid. He insisted that I try it. I was so impressed with this new fruit. It was, for lack of better words, the cutest fruit I've ever seen. Once sliced, each piece looks like a star. And it’s so tasty… a mix of sweet and sour (comparable to a granny smith apple).

We bought starfruit, coconuts, papayas, sugar cane and the largest avocado I have ever seen. I’m convinced it’s some mega breed of avocado. Courtney made sure we didn’t purchase anything that wouldn’t be ripe enough to eat before our departure in 3 days. He sliced and diced sugar cane for us as well as several coconuts. He also peeled one of the coconuts, put a hole in the top and gave us a straw to start drinking. The man was prepared! And such a great host... He didn't talk much about himself unless we asked. Of course, we had plenty of questions and he would smile as he answered. He had an indescribably endearing way of answering, and he chuckled at our excitement and interest in island life.

Come to find out Courtney was Jamaican, as I’m finding many island residents are, and he’s been living in Grand Cayman for five years. We asked if he had traveled anywhere besides Jamaica and the Grand Cayman, and he confidently answered, “No, but I will.” He had a great attitude and a sweet, soft spirit. I am so glad we stopped for produce, but even happier to have met Courtney!

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