Bankruptcy, Butchery, Buzz-Sawed Palms

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

León sold his home at the peak of the housing bubble for an eye-popping $4.7 million and moved into a $9.8 million mansion in Coral Gables in late 2005. He couldn't deal with Hull's stubbornness, he says, drumming his fingers rhythmically on his desk. "That guy caused me all kinds of aggravation."

One should not aggravate a man with León's money or political clout. Consider this: In the name of his company and family, he has funneled nearly $300,000 to Republican candidates and political action committees since 1999. This year alone, he has given $53,100 to two John McCain PACs. Locally he has donated the maximum $500 to three members of the county commission and to county Mayor Carlos Alvarez. Three other commissioners received smaller donations, from $250 to $300. Leon Medical Centers, in fact, is the top donor this year to both Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balarts' campaigns for re-election. León Jr.'s company has given $27,600 to Lincoln and $26,800 to Mario. The company is also the second-largest donor to Kendrick Meeks's campaign — with $12,500 this year — and the fourth-largest contributor to that of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen campaign, with $10,000 in the books.

"That's a lot of money," says Ben Wilcox, director of the Florida chapter of the public advocacy group Common Cause. "It's definitely for a purpose. And I don't think the purpose is in the interest of good government as much as it's in the interest of the government being good to that donor."

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.

León responds that he expects nothing from his contributions. "Never, never have I received any favors or asked for any favors from any politicians," he says. "My parents worked very hard for what they had, and I saw them lose everything because the wrong people came to power, simply because they didn't get involved. I believe in helping people who believe in free enterprise and in keeping this country strong."

Hull bought his acre of land at 10815 SW 90th Ave. in 1975 for $65,500. It sat on a block bracketed by horse farms and mango groves, and abutted a deserted, overgrown lot. The simple ranch house stood on a high coral ridge, so it would never flood or freeze. "My father told me I was insane to spend that much on a house here," Hull says. "He said, 'You could have bought three farms here for that much!'"

Hull's vision of a tropical refuge received a key boost in 1971 when Watana Sumawong — a member of the Thai royal family who oversaw the queen's garden in Bangkok — visited South Florida. "He came to see me and said, 'De, I believe in what you're doing. We need to get these palms into cultivation before they're gone,'" Hull recalls.

Sumawong asked Hull to collect rare species' seeds and distribute them to botanical gardens around the world. "He said, 'I won't pay you a salary, but if you figure out when these species are fruiting and how to germinate them, I will pay your travel costs and you can keep half of the seeds.'"

Between 1971 and 2006, Hull traveled to dozens of countries with threatened palm species, including New Guinea, Mauritius, Thailand, Panama, Costa Rica, and Jamaica. Along the way, he picked up two other wealthy patrons, David and Pat Coutts, an Australian couple interested in raising palms in their garden outside Cairns. Overall he collected the seeds for some 3,000 species in his decades of travel.

In the late Eighties, Hull went to the Mascarenes, a chain of volcanic islands east of Madagascar. He spent days collecting the seeds of the hyophorbe amaricaulis, a tree that was the only remaining member of its kind. The species had died out because it had depended on an ungainly flightless bird, a relative of the dodo, to digest its seeds before germination. When visiting explorers killed off the dodo and its close relatives, they inadvertently destroyed the entire species — except for this single specimen.

"I still think about visiting that plant," Hull says.

As his international reputation grew, he earned commissions from Kew Gardens in London and a botanical garden in Guatemala.

"He truly is a legend in his own time," says Tim Anderson, a former colleague from the extension office who now operates an exotic plant nursery in Miami. "When it comes to exotic palms and bromeliads, he's really unmatched."

Hull also became one of the largest donors in the history of the acclaimed Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, on Old Cutler Road. To date, he has given 675 different kinds of seeds, says Mary Collins, a senior horticulturist at Fairchild. "He's one of the largest donors we've ever had," she says. "These kind of donations from distant locations are key. You don't have to go to all the trouble and expense of going to places like Borneo — you can just study them here."

On his first trip to Australia, in 1980, Hull's second great passion took shape. While traveling in Queensland, he encountered lories for the first time. A relative of the parrot, the species sports some of the most shockingly bright pigment in the world, with blues, reds, and greens spread chaotically over its feathers.

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