When Richard Campbell and Noris Ledesma come back from a hunt, the fruits of their labor are usually ripe about one year later.
The two travel around the world in search of rare and exotic fruits to bring home to Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, where they graft their findings, usually small samples they’ve taken from the wild, onto mature trees at Fairchild’s farm in Homestead. From there, they and their staff care for the fragile cultivars until they are big enough to be planted and harvested.
This year they are focusing on Colombia, the world’s third-largest mango pulp exporter.
Campbell, the garden’s longtime director of horticulture, and Ledesma, curator of tropical fruit and a native of Colombia, traveled to the South American country twice during the past year, homing in on the mangoes found in the Macarena River valley, in central Colombia near the Andes. They fanned out, too, to the coasts — all in search of mangoes for this year’s Annual International Mango Festival, to be held this weekend at Fairchild.
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Ledesma said going back to her homeland reminded her of when she was in school as a young girl.
“During breaks, we would run to get a green mango,” she said. “When I get off the plane I stopped by a corner to buy mangoes and salt.”
For years, she said, she felt guilty about leaving Colombia — she moved to Miami in 2000 when she was 34 to join Fairchild — but that changed after she started working at the garden. Before taking the Fairchild job, Ledesma, who is working toward a Ph.D. in the economy of agriculture at Humboldt University of Berlin, was working with mango growers in Colombia.
“Helping the mango growers made me feel like I was giving something back,” she said.
This weekend’s festival will showcase three Colombian mangoes: the Azucar, named after the sugarcane grown in Colombia’s tropical lowlands and considered Colombia’s national fruit; the Hilacha, a sweet mango with a deep orange color used in the mango juice industry; and the Vallenato, a round, reddish mango without any fibers from the country’s Atlantic Coast.
Ledesma, born in Santiago de Cali, a city that dates from the 1500s in Colombia’s western plateau, said Colombians eat mangoes for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks in between.
Azucar mangoes are known for their sweetness and small size, and are typically dipped in salt, which brings out their sweetness.
Colombians often will hold a Hilacha in the palm of their hand, squeeze or rub it until it’s tender, then bite a hole in the base and drink the juice that springs forth.
“There’s nothing better than eating a mango like that during this hot summer and you’re working in your backyard,” Ledesma said.
The Vallenato, which has a hint of apricot taste, grows from a tree that bears plenty of fruit. It’s a good option for organic growers because it remains clean with no need to spray it, Ledesma said.
Ledesma said many Colombianshave fond childhood memories of the Azucar, Hilacha and Vallenato, but only one, the Vallenato, has made its way to U.S. markets.
“When you grow up with something, you put it in your brain and you don’t want anything else,” she said.
The festival will address the issue that Colombian growers face when trying to break into the U.S. market. The Azucar and Hilacha are yellow, pear-shaped and soften quickly, meaning their shelf life isn’t as long as those of other mangoes. And a pear-shaped mango with its narrow nose is more fragile than a rounded mango, leading to a reluctance by wholesalers to import it.
“The wholesaler dictates what you do,” Campbell said.
The Vallenato, by contrast, is reddish, round and has a thicker skin and texture, making it less apt to bruise. It is named after the city of Valledupar, on the country’s northeastern edge near the Venezuelan border, and which means “born in the valley.”
At the start of mango season — from runs from March to September — the city holds a popular mango festival in which dancers perform a folk dance called the Vallenato. The mango trees grow in the Macarena River valley and can reach more than 50 feet in height and width.
“They are huge trees with huge canopies,” Ledesma said.
Ledesma and Campbell hope to break down the barriers for the Azucar and Hilacha by showcasing them at the Fairchild festival. They point to the more than 300,000 Colombians in Florida, about one-third of whom live in Miami-Dade County, according to 2010 U.S. Census data.
Colombia is a large trading partner of South Florida Last year, it ranked second with $9.34 billion in total trade with the Miami Customs District, behind No. 1 Brazil, which registered $16.8 billion in two-way trade.
“I believe in niches,” Ledesma said. “We can create markets for specific cultures.”
The festival will sell trees from the three Colombian mangoes. The Azucar and Hilacha trees, both brought to Colombia in the 1700s by the Portuguese, grow in Colombia near sea level to more than 300 feet above it, according to Ledesma. She said some even grow with their roots in seawater.
“Those mangoes have adapted for so many years in Colombia,” Ledesma said. “It has adapted to different types of climates and soils.”
Campbell said South Florida’s climate is suitable for growing almost any type of mango.
“That’s the beauty of living in South Florida,” he said. “There’s a mango for you, and if you come from any of the tropics, you can grow them here.”
Campbell said many mangoes lost their flavorful taste when they were grown for American tastebuds. The Vallenato and the Haden, its South Florida lookalike, are not as sweet and are less colorful.
“We neutered the mango,” he said.
Fairchild is working to reverse that trend. At the festival, it will introduce a new type of mango, called Angie, which is yellow, sweeter than the Vallenato and should appeal to more Colombians.
“We’re cultivating plants and people,” Campbell said.