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Taming the wild mango

Noris Ledesma, curator of tropical fruit at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, with Kastoorees, known as the blue mango.
Noris Ledesma, curator of tropical fruit at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, with Kastoorees, known as the blue mango. Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

There is a wide diversity of wild mango (Mangifera) species that bear edible fruit. They are related to the mango we all know and love, Mangifera indica, but they are not the same. Street markets in Borneo, Malaysia, and Indonesia will sometimes display wild mangos for sale, just as they have for hundreds of years, but their consumption lies predominantly with elderly locals. Wild mangos are used mainly as vegetables, consumed in salads, pickles and chutneys. The versatility of these mangos provides a full range of flavors and uses.

These wild, edible mangos are in danger of extinction and most certainly represent an important resource for the future of mangos. The importance of conserving these species and their genetic potential is recognized by the scientific community, and Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden has been exploring mangos and their relatives for the past two decades.

In the search for the ancestors of the mango we have hunted for the mangga aer (Mangifera laurina), kuini (Mangifera odorata), bembangan (Mangifera pajang), bachang (Mangifera foetida) and the white mango (Mangifera caesia). These wild mangos still dominate the remnant forests in some places in Asia, Indonesia and Malaysia and are present in some home gardens in these regions.

Many of these fruits don’t even look like a mango. From a distance, they have a spectacular appearance, and they also have a big spectrum of flavors that range from the sweet and earthy intense flavor of Kuini to the perfect pleasant dulcet, honey flavor of the Mango Madu.

Fairchild has identified and domesticated some of these jewels of the jungle that can now grow successfully in South Florida. Wild mangos are usually not well adapted to our soils, but we have made superior selections — ones that will allow for precocious fruiting and quality mangos in your backyard.

Perhaps the superior genes contained within these species have already found their way off Borneo and into modern mangos.

Conservation of these wild mangos is imperative as they are increasingly threatened by habitat loss. Conservation methods include efforts both in and outside their natural habitat. Wild mangos form part of the tropical rain forest canopy of Southeast Asia. Few of these forest giants remain in their native habitat and if we cannot bring about the horticultural acceptance of these fruit, we may lose this important resource.

Indeed, this year at the International Mango Festival at Fairchild we will have a display of wild mangos, some available as young trees that can now be planted in your garden. You can become a citizen scientist and help us to preserve these wild mangos and play a part in the future of the mango. Here are some:

Kastooree (Mangifera casturi): Kastooree (or kasturi) is a vigorous tree that forms a tight, upright canopy with shiny, dark green leaves contrasted with bright red new growth. Although inconsistent in flowering, the tree is well adapted to our climate and the leaves, blooms and fruit are tolerant of anthracnose. The fruit are blue when ripe. The flesh is deep orange and juicy, almost addictive with sweet flavor resembling passion fruit with lychee.

Siamese: Introduced to South Florida from Singapore by the Rare Fruit Council in collaboration with Bill Whitman. This wild mango has been commercialized On the peninsula of Malaysia since the 1920s and often can be found in the local markets in Singapore. The fruits are long and slender, weighing 2 pounds. The skin is green and the flesh is intense and complex in flavor, with a melon character and a cloying sweetness. The tree bears early with a heavy production. It is resistant to diseases and easy to grow.

Mango Madu (Mangifera lalajiwa): Originally from Indonesia, the “madu” (which means “honey”) appears in great quantities in the local markets of central Java. The tree is small with leathery leaves, and the fruit is nine ounces with green skin. The flesh can be pale to deep yellow, very sweet and aromatic with a delicious honey flavor. Flowers are fragrant, with a fragrant aroma similar to jasmine. Honey bees often visit the flowers.

Kuini (Mangifera odorata): The Kuini has been in South Florida for more than 50 years, but there has been only a single accession introduced from an unknown source. The tree is vigorous, forming an open canopy with large, deep green leaves and bright red new growth. The flowers are large, bright red and highly ornamental. Fruit average 11 ounces and are from green to a canary yellow at maturity, with a rich, sweet flavor and slightly fibrous flesh. Leaf, bloom and fruit tolerance to anthracnose and powdery mildew is excellent. Trees have a pleasant conical crown making it perfect as an ornamental, as well as a fruit tree.

Here are some tips for growing your own wild mango in South Florida:

▪ Planting the tree: Select an area where the tree gets sufficient sunlight for good production.

▪ Water the tree until established — one to three months. Do not irrigate after establishment, as irrigation will increase disease susceptibility and lower fruit quality.

▪ Fertilize lightly. We recommend that no nitrogen fertilizers be applied. Fertilize when your tree is active, not during the wintertime. We use a 0-0-50 formulation, sprinkled lightly below the drip-line of the canopy three times per year. Also fertilize three times per year with foliar micronutrients that include magnesium, zinc, and manganese.

▪ Tipping: Begin tipping in the first year and continue for the life of the tree. Trees should be tipped every 20 inches.

▪ Prune trees for size control after harvest each year. Pruning maintains the health, productivity and size of the trees. After harvest the trees are pruned by hand, and the branches, twigs and leaves are mulched in place or ground up for use as mulch in other locations.

▪ Thin major limbs annually within the canopy to improve fruit color and production and avoid disease.

▪ Identify insects first. Insects are presumed innocent until proven guilty of damage. Most are not damaging. Pesticides should be the final option.

▪ Weeds are allowed to provide a nectar source for bees, flies and wasps during the spring flowering season. Control weeds through mulching and shading by the trees themselves.

▪ Harvest fruit when they are mature on the tree and store for proper ripening.

Fairchild’s 25th annual Mango Festival, with the theme “From Wild to Table,” will be at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden July 1 and 2. Information: www.fairchildgarden.org/mango

Noris Ledesma is curator of tropical fruit at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.