Bankruptcy, Butchery, Buzz-Sawed Palms

De Hull battled hurricanes, code enforcers, and banks. Then he ran into a steamroller of a neighbor.

Dim evening light streams through towering clusters of gray-blue Chinese bamboo, green spikes of Colombian guadua, and snaking tomato vines that bloom with quarter-size blue petals.

De Hull walks stiffly through his front yard, wide belly leading the way. The 62-year-old, whose first name is pronounced Dee, rubs his gray mustache and fingers a thin emerald lady palm frond that hangs over a waterlogged concrete path. "I found this one in southern Thailand," he says, shaking his head ruefully. "Grows too slowly to ever take off as an ornamental."

Untamed tangles of plant life seem to run amok on the land surrounding Hull's L-shaped ranch home. But the garden is a carefully composed safe haven for some of the most rare and exotic greenery on Earth, a place where a lone talipot palm — a Sri Lankan tree that flowers only once a century and then dies — towers over a leafy kentiopsis, cultivated from one of only two left in New Caledonia's wilds.

Five hundred varieties of palms grow on Hull's acre.
Michael McElroy
Five hundred varieties of palms grow on Hull's acre.
Dozens of threatened lories live in Hull's aviary.
Michael McElroy
Dozens of threatened lories live in Hull's aviary.

A muffled cacophony of squawks, chirps, and caterwauls sounds from a homemade aviary that surrounds a derelict in-ground pool behind Hull's house. Just a few years ago, the mammoth cage housed one of America's largest collections of lories, threatened parrots from the jungle canopies of Southeast Asia.

But that was before the disastrous summer and fall of 2005, when four hurricanes tore through his land, a tornado ripped a half-dozen palms in half, and a career criminal murdered dozens of Hull's priceless birds.

Even more catastrophically, it was the time Hull challenged his neighbor, Benjamin León Jr., in court.

León, in case you are not a member of the Republican cognoscenti, is a scion of a Cuban-American-owned healthcare empire and an influential donor to conservative causes. His apparent wrath, along with that of county code enforcers and banks, has been no less devastating to Hull and his precious flora than a Category 5 storm.

Hull stands with his hands on his hips in the dull dusk glow, staring at the jungle-like result of 35 years of gardening, of decades spent trudging through rain forests in New Guinea and up Panamanian mountainsides collecting seeds that now have sprouted into more than 500 species of palms. Thirty-five years spent turning one acre on a residential block — just a mile from traffic pouring down South Dixie Highway — into a refuge for the most threatened plants on the planet.

He will learn in a few weeks whether he will lose it all.

Hull was six years old when his passion for tropical plants first led him afoul of authority. He was a quiet boy, living on an 80-acre farm of rolling prairie five miles from Mason City, in the wheat-pregnant heart of central Illinois. Intrigued by the slick white seeds he had found inside an orange, he filled his metal lunch pail with fertile soil and planted them. By the time early summer began baking the region, the first green sprouts of an orange tree poked through the dark loam.

Hull covers his mouth with a dirt-stained hand and stares at a dusty living room bookshelf as he remembers his mother's reaction. "She was upset because it ruined the lunch pail," he says in his unique nasal pitch. "But I just thought it was great that something so exotic could come from a tiny seed like that."

If there's a green thumb gene encoded in human DNA, it was likely passed down to De Hull from birth. His mother and both grandmothers spent farms. His dad Walter and nearly every male relative devoted their lives to cultivating and harvesting winter wheat, oats, and corn.

Virtually everything the Hulls ate originated either on Walter's 80 acres or his brother Albert's plot a mile down the road. De was the oldest of four sisters and two brothers who helped their parents smoke their own hams, gather fruit and nuts from an orchard and a walnut grove, and can vegetables and strawberries. The family didn't install indoor plumbing in the weathered two-story farmhouse until De was in high school.

Through droughts and spoiled harvests, the family's pillar and De's emotional inspiration was Walter. "What I said about my dad at his funeral — he was almost 90 when he died — is that ... he was the most stubborn person I ever met in my life," Hull says. "But that was the key to his success."

Walter farmed both his own land and that of his brother, who suffered from severe asthma. To top it off, the elder Hull served 20 years as his county's roads commissioner, rising at 3 a.m. during blizzards to plow the dirt and gravel roads that crisscrossed the farmland. When he got home, he'd milk the cows.

Hull was an energetic kid. He served as president of both the local chapters of the Future Farmers of America and the Christian Youth Association.

But he was far from typical.

For one, his initial interest in that orange seedling had blossomed into a full-on obsession with tropical foliage. When he found a small palm from Mexico on sale at the local dime store, he snapped it up and kept it on the family's sun porch. He bought another from a florist in Mason City, and a third from a shop in Chicago on a school trip. Soon he had 13 palms growing behind the farmhouse. "I loved them because they were exotic," Hull says. "But it was just horrible.... I was considered different because I liked plants and flowers so much."

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