Botany and Background

Odet Philippe (1780-1869)

The man who brought the Grapefruit to Florida

Odet Philippe was born in 1789 in Lyon, France. He was said to be a nephew of King Louis XVI and a childhood friend of Napoleon, and he eventually rose to the position of chief surgeon in the French Emperor’s army. The legend has it that Philippe was captured by the British at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1806, which led to his release into the Americas on the promise that he would never return to French service.

He reportedly became well known at ports along the eastern American seaboard and around the Caribbean. He used his position as a physician to gain favour with various people, including an infamous pirate known as Gomez. From him, Philippe learned of a beautiful uninhabited bay called “Espirito Santu” now known as Tampa Bay.

Odet Philippe’s ship – the Ney (named after one of Napoleon’s vessels), was seen regularly in Florida waters, and he initially made several settlement attempts on the eastern shore but was driven off by Native Americans. He had more luck when he landed on Florida’s west coast around the time of Spain’s ceding of Florida in 1821. He established a plantation, which he named “St. Helena” on the shores of what is now known as Old Tampa Bay and close to the present-day Tampa suburb of Safety Harbour. There was an old Indian mound near his landing spot, and he constructed his homestead close to this edifice.

Philippe, the first settler in the region, planted a variety of citrus and other fruit products, most notably Grapefruit but also Oranges, Limes, Avocados and Bananas, all of which he had acquired during his time in the Caribbean. The grove that he established was the first post-colonial commercial grove in the relatively unsettled territory of Florida and the first on the west coast. His plantation was ravaged by a fierce hurricane in 1848, but the Indian mound protected his holdings from more significant damage and Philippe rebuilt his homestead.

Philippe’s main citrus crop were Grapefruits, which were considered at the time to be a “rich-man’s dish”. Philippe gave A.L. Duncan a seedling derived from seeds he had obtained in Cuba in 1840, and Duncan turned these into the popular Duncan grapefruit variety. When grapefruit became a more popular crop in the late 19th century, its success could be attributed to Philippe’s work with the crop in the first half of the century. Although it lacks the benefits of concentrate that orange juice possesses, grapefruit now accounts for one fifth of citrus production in Florida.

Philippe, died in 1869, was buried in the grounds of his estate. Where his plantation once stood is the present day location of Philippe Park, a 122-acre facility owned and operated by Pinellas County. The original Indian mound still sits on the property, where a marker commemorates where Philippe’s groves originally stood.