Growing plants for fuel might be an engine-revving idea for some south Florida farmers who feel their crops have stalled, a University of Florida researcher says.

Jatropha curcas, a plant native to Mexico that is being widely grown for fuel and medicine in some parts of the world, is a tree that produces golf ball-sized fruit. Inside each fruit are three seeds full of oil that can be pressed to make biodiesel.

“For maybe a year and a half now, I have been working on an idea that here in deep South Florida we can grow a biodiesel crop that does not conflict with food and that we have a comparative advantage in growing,” said Roy Beckford, a Lee County Extension agent who specializes in sustainable farm development.

Beckford, who works for the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, has been pushing Jatropha as an alternate crop to south Florida farmers the past couple years through IFAS newsletters.

Biodiesel is a fuel made from natural sources, such as new and used vegetable oils and animal fats, for use in diesel engines. It is safe, biodegradable and contains fewer pollutants than gasoline.

Jatropha, also called Barbados nut or physic nut — as well as several other names, including black vomit nut for its use as a purgative — also contains glycerine that must be extracted from the fuel. Early Central American settlers lit the long-burning seeds in a bowl, as makeshift candles, Beckford said.

Recently, a company called Dream Fuels donated some 1,500 Jatropha curcas seedlings worth about $6,000 to Lee County. Following the ceremonial planting of about 100 seedlings attended by Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottcamp and other officials, the rest of the seedlings were planted on a 1-acre demonstration farm at Orange River Park in the Buckingham area of Lee County.

The planting is part of a much larger effort by county officials to reduce reliance on petroleum-derived fuels. They plan to build a biodiesel plant at the site of a closed landfill and to use Jatropha and restaurant grease to fuel at least part of the county’s fleet, said Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah.

“We think it’s doable,” he said.

The trees can grow to 20 feet tall, can thrive up to 50 years and can be harvested twice a year — as quickly as 18 months after planting, under ideal conditions. It does well in both good and poor soil and doesn’t require heavy cultivation, fertilization or irrigation.

One acre of Jatropha can yield between 600 to 1,000 gallons of oil per year, although at least two companies marketing the plant say they have varieties that yield much more.

Beckford said he believes farmers trying to recover from citrus canker or greening might want to give Jatropha a look. Because it fares well in bad soil, he also says the crop might be helpful for landowners whose property is unsuitable for traditional agriculture.

He also suggests that Jatropha be used as a replacement in cases where invasive plants such as Brazilian pepper and Melaleuca are removed from the landscape.

Besides the donated seedlings that are now being planted, Beckford said a handful of Lee County growers are on the verge of planting as well. Also in Lee County, a non-profit Christian group called Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization, or ECHO, has been growing a half-acre of the trees for more than five years.

ECHO specializes in finding alternative crops for underdeveloped countries and is currently using the trees as a “living fence.” Some underdeveloped countries plant a line of trees as a fence to keep animals from grazing on their farms.

Martin Price, one of ECHO’s co-founders, said although the trees appear to be doing well there, his group is hesitant to lead the cheers without more feasibility studies in place.

“We are not promoters at this point,” he said. “But we’re a big believer of the potential in underutilized crops.”

But with other countries, such as China, India and Brazil, investing heavily in Jatropha, Beckford says time is of the essence, especially with federal goals for renewable fuels.

“I’ll keep plugging it, because I want to make sure something comes from it,” he said. “If we don’t do it, someone else will.”