It has been more than 200 years since mangos arrived in South Florida, carried here by pirates. But it wasn’t until 1889 that grafted Indian varieties were successfully introduced.
Today, of the six hundred different varieties grown around the world, all can be grown here. Next weekend, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, named for the man who introduced the grafted mango, will celebrate the fruit and its history with its 21st annual Mango Festival
More than two centuries ago, pirates navigated the tempestuous waters from Fort Myers down to Sanibel and Captiva Islands, south to Naples and east to the coveted Keys. The pirates carried mango seeds that over generations made this peninsula their home.
. Before 1900, only seedlings of turpentine mangos — called that because they tasted and/or smelled like turpentine — were grown. Dr. Henry Perrine attempted to introduce mango seedlings into Florida in 1833, but the trees died from neglect following Perrine’s death. There are records of turpentine mango plantings along the Miami River banks in 1862 by Dr. Fletcher. By that time other trees were grown successfully from seeds, some using imported seeds from Cuba.
The first successful introduction of grafted Indian varieties was made in 1889 by Dr. David Fairchild, who worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture; the Mulgoba mango was one of these. None of these mango introductions made it except the Mulgoba tree.
A new mango tree born in Coconut Grove was a Mulgoba variety; it was grown in Florence Haden’s backyard beginning in 1910. The turpentine and Mulgoba mangos were an unlikely pair, the rather pedestrian, fibrous-yet-spicy turpentine from the Caribbean lowlands, and the refined, smooth-fleshed and delicate Mulgoba of India. But the two joined together and produced a new generation of mangos. This new generation has an eye-stopping display of reds, yellows and greens overlaid by white highlights, and with excellent flavor. It was named “Haden” and quickly came to dominate Florida’s fledgling mango industry.
The Haden mango became popular early on and was the most popular commercially grown mango until World War II. The Haden is still a favorite backyard tree due to its delicious flavor. Other varieties became more popular to grow commercially because they could withstand the rigors of shipping, produced fruit more regularly and were more disease resistant.
Haden gave rise to the most important export mango cultivars in the world. From the seeds of Haden came the sweet and spicy Kent of Miami; the pastel-hued Keitt of Homestead, and the gorgeous, firm and productive Tommy Atkins of Fort Lauderdale. As to the identity of their fathers, there exists only conjecture.
However, many other Miami varieties are named after the people who discovered them. The Cushman, a yellow-skinned variety, was named after E.L. Cushman, who planted the seed in 1936. The sweet, delicious favorite Kent was first planted in 1932 on the property of Leith Kent.
Commercial production of the fruit now spans six continents, and here in Florida is where most of the world’s commercial varieties were developed. The Tommy Atkin, Keitt, and Kent remain the most popular commercial varieties in Mexico, all Central America, Peru, Ecuador and Brazil, where the majority of the mangos at stores in the United States originate, and they were all selected in Florida more than 100 years ago.
A few decades ago was the heyday for many local mango growers. Some families farmed 350 acres of mangos during the 1970’s, the glory days of the Florida mango. The mango empire stretched over 20 miles, from the outskirts of Miami to the heart of Homestead. There were groves next to suburban subdivisions, and groves planted right beside the wilds of the Everglades.
But today, all that remains is a single five-acre orchard. Ninety-nine percent of the mangoes in American supermarkets are imported from South America and the Caribbean — but they are all varieties developed here in South Florida.
Mangos can be grown on both the east and west coasts of Florida; on the west from Tampa Bay south, and on the east coast from Cape Kennedy, or in the frost-free areas.
Every household with a yard in South Florida should have a mango tree. There are so many opportunities for growing mangos in South Florida — more than 600 varieties. Small, manageable landscape trees that yield an ample harvest of beautiful and delicious fruit and disease-tolerant cultivars provide unprecedented opportunities for organic production to provide vital nutrition to our families. Varieties with an early fruiting season should be chosen to avoid the summer rains, along with superior genetics to ward off the onslaught of disease and ensure practical sustainability.
Noris Ledesma is curator of tropical fruit at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.