By Jean-Jacques Segalen (jjacques) February 23, 2011
My last article probably left some readers salivating and ready for another taste of juicy sweet tropical jewel growing on trees, here comes a pretty tasty one!
The litchi fruit runs through a relatively short season, which explains why it triggers such a greedy frenzy among its worshippers, but the mango fruit can be enjoyed (on Reunion Island anyway!) on a longer scale of time, allowing one to really develop a deeper knowledge and appreciation of it. This means that we can indulge in them between the months of November and March.
To start with, let's see where this marvel comes from. By paying attention to its Latin name just like for Litchi chinensiswhich undoubtedly is from China, the Mangifera indica will, of course, originate in India. More precisely it would come from northeastern Indian forests, close to Nepal and Myanmar. The genera Mangifera which comprises some 30 species of trees can be found in the wild throughout a large area between northern India and Australia, with Indo-Malaysia in between. Anyway, the tree has been grown in Asia for at least 4000 years; the word "mango" comes from the Malay language where it refers to the wild variety growing in the jungle. The Mughal emperor Akbar largely contributed to the propagation of the species as he had some 100.000 trees planted in his kingdom at the end of the year 1500. The Arab and Phoenician sailors introduced the tree in Eastern Africa and Madagascar as soon as the tenth century, it was widely spread later on by the Spanish and Portuguese navigators, first to Africa then South America and Oceania and is nowadays one of the first commercial crops in the tropics. In the U.S., south Florida is the number one place for its production and it of course flourishes in Hawaii.
The tree is an evergreen which can reach the serious height of 50 feet (15 meters) and some specimens have been measured at 100 feet (30 meters) with a short bulky trunk and massive foliation. The timber is of good quality, hard and quite insect-proof, often used for ship-making. The leaves are glabrous (no hair), elliptic-oblong in shape, narrow at both ends, deep green on the upper surface and grayish green or paler green underneath. When crushed they produce a distinctive smell of turpentine like various other species of the Anacardiaceae family and have several medicinal properties; yellow leaves boiled with a piece of bark will treat bronchitis, diarrhea and dysentery while green leaves put to soak will help for asthma. On Reunion Island, the leaves are also reputed to be efficient to cast off spells by taking a bath where they are mixed with various other species...The almond has been used against parasitic worms with great success and the flowers can cure burns in the form of decoction applied on the wound. Those flowers come in panicles and are real tiny with whitish petals about 4 mm long, they will bear either the male parts (stamens) or the male and female parts (hermaphrodites), it will take some 120 days between fecundation of the ovary and full maturity of the fruit. The best climate for this plant is a rather dry one as rainy places will induce so many phyto-sanitary problems that it would not be worth growing it. It can grow in various kinds of soils but will do better in poor and stony soils, an excess of organic matter or of fertilizers will often result in an active stems and leaves growth and a poor fruit producing, this tree is able to extract what it needs even in seemingly unfavorable places. A dry season of eight to twelve weeks is compulsory in order to trigger flowering hence fruiting. The crop will of course benefit from regular but never excessive watering during the fruits maturating time.
Although there is only one species of mango trees, there are many different fruits with over hundreds of different cultivars. Fruits can be spherical, elongated, flat, with colors varying from green, yellow to red and all the shades of orange, even purplish or looking like the Jamaican flag...Weight can be anywhere between 150g and 1kg with a more common balance around 300-400g, the perfect amount for one person! Once the skin peeled it reveals a yellow to orange flesh which can contain rather strong fibers (not comfortable as they tend to get stuck between your teeth) but most commercial varieties lack them in favor of a melting sweet juicy flesh with a unique flavor. This fruit has a high energey effect as it contains up to 14% of sugar, it also has an interesting level of vitamin C, similar to citrus fruits. It has the richest amount of pro-vitamin A (beta carotene) which happens to be one of the best antioxidant effect and will efficiently fight many serious ailments. Iron is also particularly abundant here and its association with C vitamin allows it to be more easily used by the body hence fighting anemia. Although the fruit is usually enjoyed out of hand, it is often turned into juice, marmalade, chutneys and various preserves. On Reunion it is even enjoyed while still green and unripe, made into ‘rougail' a typical local side dish; the green flesh is finely cut in tiny bits, mixed with salt, chopped onions and hot pepper (either red or green) oil and ginger can be added.
Now let us get a little technical about this tree. There are two very different groups amongst mangoes; the polyembryonic one and the monoembryonic one. The first group will produce from its seed several embryos (or shoots if you prefer) out of which only one (or none) will result from a fecundation, the other ones coming from non fecundated nucellar cells hence producing the exact same tree at the mother plant, in simpler terms it means that varieties from this group can be propagated by sowing. The second group (monoembryonic) will produce only one embryo coming from a fecundation which means that it may very well be the result of hybridization with another variety and will anyway differ greatly from the mother plant, varieties from this group will therefore be propagated by grafting. Of course variation and hybridization may very well give birth to interesting new varieties such as the famous ‘José' and ‘Grosse José' on Reunion; this is why so many different varieties can be found.
On an international scale, mangoes are an important commercial crop in the tropics, both for self consumption and for the export market. India is by far the number one with 44% of the world production (some 30 million tons), most of it for transformation. Second is China with 13%, Thailand (7%), Mexico (5%). Minor producers such as Brazil, Ivory Coast, South Africa etc...provide European markets. Although Reunion Island does export some mangoes it is only towards France and in extremely small amounts; on a total production of 3000 tons only 110 are exported.
Sooo, should I peel one of those nice Early Gold for you? Unless you prefer tasting a José, right out of the fridge it is a pure marvel especially in summer, you will love it and ask for more!
About Jean-Jacques Segalen
I am a Parisian born professional horticulturist specialized in tropical seeds producing, living on Reunion island (just between Mauritius and Madagascar) since 20 years . I spend a lot of time gathering seeds in the wild, the ones I do not grow that is. Also a dedicated Tai-Chi practitioner and fully certified arborist-tree surgeon
Just released my first book on tropical plants and fruits, check it at http://www.barbadine.com/pages/livrejjGB.html