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Why Fairchild celebrates the Cuban mango

The very juicy 'Bizcochuelo' mango.
The very juicy 'Bizcochuelo' mango. Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

No other fruit has the historic association of the mango, or is so inextricably connected with the folklore of Cuba. Many of South Florida’s Cuban residents have fond memories of shaking mango branches or throwing stones to knock down fruit from the giant mango tree planted in their abuelo’s yard.

Since the early 1700s, when the mango first arrived in Cuba from Jamaica, it has been one of the nation’s favorite fruits. The mango is widely distributed throughout Cuba, but the main growing region is around Havana and in the hills of Santiago de Cuba.

Here's the easiest way to slice up a mango.

Now there are new expectations for the mango since historic agreements for U.S.-Cuba agriculture sectors were announced during President Obama’s trip to Cuba in March. Cuba has unique geographic conditions for growing mangoes, as well as microclimates than can be adapted to produce mangoes 10 months of the year. Cuba has much room for growth and new opportunities for the mango industry. Certainly, there is still much to do, including new regulations and trying to empower the Cuban private sector to help its farmers gain economic independence.

The mango is a fruit of great distinction, cultivated with specific objectives to improve our quality of life.

Noris Ledesma, curator of tropical fruit, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

Every backyard in South Florida also presents an opportunity to grow mangoes. South Florida has become the mango’s second home, and it is our privilege and responsibility to care for the tree and fruit. The mango is a fruit of great distinction, cultivated with specific objectives to improve our quality of life.

CUBAN MANGO VARIETIES

Several varieties of Cuban mangoes are worth mentioning. The ‘Bizcochuelo’ mango of Santiago de Cuba is a tremendously succulent fruit that you can squeeze and almost drink, enjoy it fresh or in a milkshake. The ‘Filipino’ is a traditional mango in Cuba, with an intense sweetness and tropical flare. There are also the ‘Mango Chino’ of the Quinta Aviles at Cienfuegos, ‘Manga Mamey’ well known in Havana, the ‘Manga Amarilla’ and ‘Manga Blanca’ (the yellow and white mango, respectively). These are just a few of the wondrous mangoes found on the island.

Many of the mangoes of old Cuba are now available in South Florida:

Toledo typifies the local Caribbean mango, abundant and one of the most popular in Cuba. It is small by nature and can be maintained with a height and spread of less than eight feet. The fruit are small, averaging less than six ounces. The skin is a speckled greenish-yellow with a slight orange-pink blush. The flesh is somewhat fibrous, but the flavor is a rich, sweet and true lowland mango experience.

Prieto is another heirloom cultivar from Cuba and an important local market mango on the island. The fruit are small, about six ounces. The skin is a dark green — so dark that it earned the name “black” or Prieto in Spanish. Beneath lies a deep orange flesh and considerable fiber. Do not let this fact stop you from enjoying the rich, sweet and spicy flavor. The height and canopy spread can be maintained at six feet.

San Felipe originated in western Cuba. Its beauty is eye-catching and the flavor is intensely sweet and aromatic. The fruit is large at 20 ounces with a striking oxblood color; the flesh is yellow. This is a somewhat fast-growing tree with an open canopy and long shoots that must be pruned annually to properly control the size. Yields are consistent and heavy.

Some favorite varieties of Cuban mangoes that will do well in South Florida are Toledo, Prieto and San Felipe

In the home landscape, get your tree in the ground during summer rainy season, from June to July; no special soil is needed. Choose a small but healthy tree. A tree in a two-gallon container is a good size. A small tree will establish itself quicker and grow stronger roots that will resist hurricanes.  

Select an area where the tree gets sufficient sunlight to ensure good fruit production. A well-maintained mango tree will develop a healthy root system; kept to a proper size, its roots will not damage nearby pavement or building foundations. An unhealthy tree with a weak root system will easily be toppled by hurricane winds.

Surprisingly, mango trees like moderately dry conditions. They require irrigation just until they are established, from one to three months. Do not irrigate after establishment. Excess irrigation will increase exposure to disease and lower fruit quality and can even kill a mango tree.

Grown in harmony with their environment, their care is built on a foundation of sustainable horticulture — not on the heavy hand of modern chemicals and fertilizers. It is only in this manner that mangoes can achieve greatness of character. When planting, there is no need to add any fertilizer. A month after planting, feed lightly with a fertilizer containing low levels of nutrients. We recommend that no nitrogen fertilizers be applied.

A light layer of mulch will protect the root system, and as it decomposes, it will provide the nitrogen the tree needs. Only fertilize when your tree is active, from April to September. Do not fertilize during the winter. Use a 0-0-50 formulation fertilizer, sprinkled lightly below the drip-line of the canopy three times per year. Foliar micronutrients that include magnesium, zinc and manganese will help balance out the nutritional needs of your tree, especially during fruit production.

Pruning should be your main horticultural practice. Pruning means balance, shaping your tree starting from a young age. Proper early pruning will provide balance for the rest of your tree’s life. The first pruning should be done to remove the terminal bud.

Tipping begins in the first year and continues for the life of the tree. Trees should be tipped every 20 inches. When pruning mango trees, you are trying to maintain height while improving flowering and fruiting. A well-managed mango tree is smaller than 15 feet, has a complex structure of branches, and all parts are open to sunlight. Prune trees by hand for size control after harvest each year. The branches, twigs and leaves can be mulched in place or ground up or composted for use in other locations.

When you see insects, identify them before taking any action. Remember, insects are presumed innocent until proven guilty of damage. Most are not damaging. Pesticides should be a last resort.

Allow some nearby weeds to grow to provide a nectar source for bees, flies and wasps, particularly during the spring flowering season. You can keep weeds under control through mulching and the shade provided by the trees themselves.

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

If you go

What: Fairchild’s 24th annual International Mango Festival, with lectures, workshops, cooking demonstrations, tree sales, displays, vendors and more.

When: July 9-10, 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where: Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, 10901 Old Cutler Rd., Coral Gables.

Cost: Adults $25; seniors 65+ $18; children 6-17 $12; children 5 and under free; members free.

Information: 305-667-1651, fairchildgarden.org

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