My obsession started like so many obsessions do, with a question so sticky, so delicious, it was impossible to ignore: Is the tree that gave rise to the entire mango industry in the western hemisphere still alive more than 110 years later in a Coconut Grove yard?
This wouldn’t be just any mango tree; this tree is the first of its kind, “the granddaddy of all Florida mangoes,” as one person later told me. It was the result of the first time anyone in America had successfully crossed two species of unremarkable mangoes and luckily — improbably, revolutionarily — created a mango that made people swoon.
It was the first to ripen to a rosy blush, with a tropical piney scent. It was the first mango you could bite into without getting a mouthful of mango dental floss, and it was hearty enough to be shipped commercially all over the world. Yet it was so perfectly adapted to our ground, temperature and weather that many South Floridians unknowingly have grown up with this mango in our backyards.
It was a mango so good that 100 years ago, Florida horticulturalists — looking for a new fruit to grow here — would make this mango their ambassador to the world.
Spicy, flashy, easy to fall in love with at first sight (or first bite): You might call it the most Miami mango ever. And all of it came from a single tree.
And, like Miami, it was founded by a woman, the wife of a retired Army captain who planted the seed by his house, blocks from the home of Everglades defender Marjory Stoneman Douglas. He died before he saw it bear fruit, but his widow raised the tree and introduced the world to the mango she named for her late husband — the Haden.
I consulted with experts, read the 100-year-old texts of the widow, pored over a 60-year-old report that seem to pinpoint the tree and even spoke to descendants who had visited the tree (and one neighbor who remembers bringing the widow fresh-baked cookies and taking mangoes in return).
All of it led to a single, ancient Haden mango tree that grows twisted in the stifling saltwater breeze blowing in from Biscayne Bay.
Experts who have seen it (and climbed it to gather fruit) say this tree is easily 100 years old. It has withstood hurricanes, dodged disease and escaped the maw of development. And all of it thanks to mango lovers, tolerant homeowners and dumb luck.
But is this the tree?
I couldn’t stop thinking about it from the moment I came across that online photo.
‘It caused such a stir’
John and Florence Haden came to Miami, like so many before and after them, to reinvent themselves.
An eye condition forced Capt. Haden, a West Point grad from Howard County, Missouri, who served with the 8th U.S. Infantry, to retire after 19 years. But he was still a young man in 1896. And when he read in Cosmopolitan Magazine that Flagler’s railroad into Miami had been finished, he was intrigued.
He and his wife visited the state, touring Central Florida by wagon before arriving in Miami later that year. The first time they walked the property overlooking Biscayne Bay, under the oak hammocks, they bought the 13-acre tract of land and almost immediately started experimenting with growing tropical fruits.
John Haden had heard about a crop of Mulgoba mangoes that a grower in West Palm Beach had produced from plants brought from India. So the Hadens sailed to West Palm Beach in 1902 and returned to what was then spelled Cocoanut Grove with four dozen Mulgoba fruits — pretty, tasty, but inconsistent — that they planted on their property.
The following year on Jan. 30, before the trees could bear fruit, John January Haden died of “malarial jaundice,” Florence Haden wrote in an obituary for the Florida State Horticultural Society. He was an original member of the society and “one of its warmest friends,” she wrote, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
But then nature — and Florence Powers Haden — took over. She tended to her late husband’s grove and watched the seedlings mature into trees. Some trees produced “thin, poor looking fruits,” she wrote in a report to the FSHS in 1910 still archived on the society’s website (and still misspelling her name as Florence R. Hayden). Some mangoes were elongated. Others were compact and round. But on one single tree, everything came together.
This fruit was different. When it ripened, it didn’t go from green to yellow like other mangoes. It blushed. No other mango produced in Florida had ever done that before.
The red-and-gold fruit grew to the size of a softball, rounded like the often tiny mulgoba. Inside, it was a deep gold, almost orange, with the piney scent of a turpentine mango without being stringy.
“A fruit sent from my orchard and named ‘The Haden,’ in honor of Captain Haden who planted the seed, was pronounced to have more good points than any yet tested,” she wrote to the society in 1910, after getting word from the Department of Agriculture that hers had been scored higher than any other mango they had ever tested.
Growers flocked to see this new mango. Two of the area’s major growers took budwood — young branches from the first Haden — and grafted them onto the roots of other trees to create identical clones of the original Haden.
In a few short years, tens of thousands of young Haden trees popped up in Miami and throughout the state — which became a major player in shipping Haden mangoes throughout South America and the Pacific.
“That’s what started the whole industry in Florida,” said Dr. Richard Campbell, director of horticulture at Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden for more than 20 years, who left to join Ciruli Brothers, one of America’s major mango importers. “It caused such a stir. Until the Haden was discovered, there had never been anything like that. It was a true ‘Aha!’ moment in mango genetics. … It was just one of those lucky rolls of the dice that created the Haden.”
Over the decades, growers have crossed the tree with others to create new varieties (called cultivars). And today, 70 to 80 percent of mangoes grown commercially are descendants of the Haden.
But the world moved on. The Haden fell out of favor in other parts of the world. It is susceptible to disease, and other crosses have produced smoother fruit, with fewer fibers and more refined flavors. That said, Ciruli brothers still imports more than nine million boxes of Hadens from Mexico every year, Campbell said.
Campbell took budwood off that original tree more than 30 years ago. His father, Carl — the late professor emeritus at the University of Florida’s Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead, a consultant for 22 countries — took him to visit it. Together, they created a clone from that branch of the original Haden and planted it at the Fairchild Farm, where it remains for visitors to see and taste.
But 30 years is a long time to remember where a single tree, in Miami’s most wooded neighborhood, stood.
That’s where the photo comes in.
Alex Salazar took two of his colleagues on what you might call a trip to mango mecca.
A mango grower in West Palm Beach, he was in Miami for the annual open house at the USDA’s research office off Old Cutler Road, where dozens of different mango varieties, including a Haden clone, grow. He asked fellow mango growers if they wanted to visit the original Haden mango tree. They knew he had been on its trail for years.
Salazar had set aside his University of South Florida international studies degree to grow mangoes after he left school to care for his ailing father in Ormond Beach. He started reading up on mangoes to tend to the trees in his father’s backyard. Before he knew it, his hobby had become a mango madness. He rented land in the heart of West Palm Beach and now grows 230 varieties of mangoes at his Tropical Acres Farms.
When he looked into all the varieties of mangoes he was growing, he realized they had one thing in common: They were all descended from Hadens.
“The Haden is the parent to the best Florida mangoes,” Salazer said.
Salazar started reading everything he could on the Haden mangoes, sifting through articles that Florence Powers Haden had written at the turn of the century. If Haden came up in a search, he devoured it.
That led him to a treasure map. A 1956 article in “Tequesta: The Journal of the Historical Association of Southern Florida” led the way. In “Mango Growing Around Early Miami,” writer Harold Dorn delves deep in a 16-page article about his travels with his brother through Florida, an exhaustive bit of research in which he concludes that “the Haden set a standard difficult to surpass.”
About halfway in, Dorn writes that Haden’s original tree was planted “east of the extension of Douglas Road south from the old Coconut Grove road, now known as Ingraham Highway.”
Like an Ahab searching for his golden mango, he started down the road. He, Mark Young and Cecil Brumfield — all mango growers in Palm Beach County — searched backyards as they slowed the car to a crawl as they passed the Ingraham Highway split.
And there, less than a block south, on the corner of Klebba Lane, they found a 25-foot-tall mango tree with a wide trunk and gnarled roots. Hanging from it were green Haden mangoes.
“Sure enough, there was an ancient Haden, exactly where the article said it was,” Salazar said. “You could tell by looking at it immediately that it was really quite old. … I’m, like, 90-something percent sure that’s the tree.”
He and his friends circled the tree, taking pictures of themselves with it. Even Richard Campbell, when told about their find, says, “That’s got to be it.”
“That’s the great granddaddy of all Florida mangoes,” said Brumfield, who owns a 1.3-acre farm with about 50 varieties of mango trees. He imagined what the first growers thought when they first saw this golden-red mango: “The mango people probably thought they’d died and went to heaven.”
Young grew up in Hawaii with only two types of mangoes. The Haden was one of them.
“It was kind of awe-inspiring,” Mark Young said.
Salazar snapped a picture of the tree and posted it to the Wikipedia entry for Haden mangoes — which is how I found it last year.
It’s the improbability that caught my attention. How easily could that tree have been cut down over the last 100 years? All you have to do is look around and see the glut of newer houses around it. Imagine the many chainsaws it had to escape.
There’s nothing to protect a historic tree like this, not really. There’s no ordinance, no proclamation, not so much as a plaque to tell a homeowner of its history. There’s nothing to stop a new owner with no sense of history (or a taste for mangoes) from hiring a local crew to reduce it to kindling.
Roger Hammer had visited the tree with Carl Campbell in the early 1980s, when he still ran the 120-acre Castellow Hammock Preserve & Nature Center in the Redland, as a retired “long-hair hippie” who lived for eight months in a Volkswagen van.
Hammer, an author, botanist and former Miami-Dade county senior naturalist, tells the story of visiting the country’s largest gumbo limbo in Miami to check on it after Hurricane Andrew on an assignment for the state. He found that new owners from Belize had moved in and razed it. The shade, they told him, was shrouding their impatiens.
“Somebody could buy that house and decide, ‘That thing sucks,’ cut it down and that’d be it. It’d be lost to history,” Hammer said.
Longwood, Florida, was once home to a 125-foot-tall tree nicknamed The Senator, the biggest and oldest bald cypress in the world, estimated at 3,500 years old, which president Calvin Coolidge visited and dedicated with a plaque. In 2012, a Florida woman burned it down while smoking meth.
That a 100-year-old mango tree survives in suburbia is a credit to homeowners like Rudy Kranys. The retired engineer bought the house on Klebba Lane, with the massive Haden out front, when he moved to Florida in the 1980s. He remodeled the house. But he never touched the tree.
He hadn’t tasted a mango in years, not since a co-worker offered him one while he was working on a rocket research base in New Jersey. His first thought: Meh, they’re OK.
“But they weren’t Haden mangoes,” he said.
After he bought the house, Kranys tried a mango for only the second time in his life.
“I thought, ‘These are better than anything I’ve ever tasted,’ ” he said.
Every year, he ships mangoes to his daughters in Indianapolis, Charlotte, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
One year, he got a phone call out of the blue from Salazar, who was researching the Haden mango. Kranys was skeptical at first — “What’s this guy up to?” — before he realized he had met a fellow mango aficionado who told him the story of his Haden tree.
“He was just a guy who was so excited about finding the first Haden mango tree,” Kranys said.
Now Kranys is the keeper of the tree, a historical site that bears delicious fruit every year.
Bruce Matheson remembers this tree, too.
It sits on property his grandfather, Hugh — the son of W.J. Matheson for whom Matheson Hammocks Park is named — bought from the widow Florence Haden. They became neighbors, and she lived just on the other side of Douglas Road in the original wooden house she built with her husband.
Bruce Matheson, 70, remembers baking cookies for her with his mother and walking through his grandfather’s backyard (grabbing a handful of ripe, dark mulberries on the way there to hand to her). On his way, he passed the old Haden mango tree he had rarely noticed.
He’s standing in the middle of Klebba Lane on a recent Friday afternoon, squinting his eyes as he tries to see into the past.
He motions to a pair of houses across the street that sit on property that used to be where John and Florence Haden’s house was. Between them, there is an old mango tree that has been severely cut back, but a developer made the conscious decision not to cut it down, even though it is less than three feet on either side from the new houses.
For years, Matheson thought maybe this was the original tree.
That is, until Noris Ledesma arrives.
Ledesma, who became curator of tropical fruit at Fairchild after Campbell left, hugs Matheson when she meets him in the middle of the road, then turns to the tree on Klebba Lane, the reason I asked them to meet here today (she for her expertise, Matheson for his remembrances). With us is Jorge Zaldivar, who helped start the months-old email chain with other fruit tree experts.
Before any of us realize it, Ledesma is climbing the tree.
She’s hopped up between the split trunk and reaching for three softball-sized mangoes, which she carefully plucks and hands down to Matheson. She hops down, holds the mangoes to her nose and breathes in their scent as she appraises the tree.
“This is a tree that’s been here for at least 100 years,” says Ledesma, author of more than 30 academic journals and contributor to eight different books on tropical fruits. “This tree has been here a long time.”
Looking at the branches, she can tell it has survived several hurricanes. The hurricane of 1926 would have blown in west, right to left, from the bay, and the tree leans to the left.
“This has been through three or four hurricanes, maybe more,” she says, placing her hand on the trunk and looking up into the canopy.
Storms have toppled the tall branches. South Florida’s limestone ground has forced the roots into a ball that protrudes from the surface. It’s essentially a 25-foot bonsai, she says, older than it looks to the untrained eye.
She holds one of the mangoes in her hands and feels its weight.
“This was the discovery that changed the history of mangoes,” she says. “This mango helped to create a culture of mango lovers in South Florida. … This is a part of our heritage.”
Ledesma has stood under the canopy of 300-year-old Indian mango trees in the shadow of the Himalayas. She’s a scientist but also a romantic and a self-described “mango maniac.” And when she looks at the Haden, she sees thousands of years of history that led to this improbable discovery: “This mango has the blood of the mangoes that came here with the pirates.”
What she isn’t is a clairvoyant. Although core samples could prove the age of this mango tree, no one can say with certainty it is the single mango tree that started it all. The evidence is overwhelming but circumstantial.
As I drive her back to her office at Fairchild, she points out smaller mango trees around the neighborhood. It’s clear, she says, that the Hadens’ discovery inspired others to plant clones of a mango unlike anything anyone had seen in Florida.
What John and Florence Haden started more than 100 years ago doesn’t end with a single tree.
“The original Haden is not gone,” Ledesma says. “It’s all around us.”
Correction: Roger Hammer is an author, botanist and former Miami-Dade county senior naturalist, not an environmental lawyer.
The 25th Annual International Mango Festival
What: Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens hosts its annual two-day mango festival, with mango tastings from the largest mango collection in the world. There will also be tree sales, mango auctions, lectures, cooking demonstrations and tips to keep mango trees thriving.
When: Saturday and Sunday, beginning at 11 a.m.
Where: Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens, 10901 Old Cutler Road, Coral Gables
More information: 305-667-1651; FairchildGarden.org