Donna PorterIt's a Wonderful World of Plants

Hail to the King of Fruits

hibiscusBy Donna Porter

The delectable, juicy and unsurpassed sweetness of the Mango fruit is enjoyed by more people on a world-wide scale that any other fruit.  Mango is considered the “King of Fruits”.    They are associated with fortune, abundance and fertility and are represented in religious themes of South Asia’s Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian communities. It is said that the forbidden fruit or “apple” in the biblical story of the Garden of Eden was that of the Mango. Fossil records dating back 25 to 30 million years have revealed the Mango’s center of origin as northeast India, Myanmar/Burma and Bangladesh and their cultivation dates back more than 6,000 years.

Mango, Mangifera indica, belongs to the family Anacardiaceae.   To attest to its popularity, this one species, M. indica, has over 900 cultivars and 102 hybrid crosses, with the majority originating in India and Srj Lanka.  Unknown cultivars of Mangifera indica first arrived in Costa Rica in the early 1800’s from other Latin American countries.   Today, the majority of Mangoes consumed in Costa Rica are produced in the province of Alajuela, mainly around the Oritina area.  The most popular commercial varieties grown in Costa Rica are ‘Ataulfo’ (the smallest, 6 – 12oz), ‘Irwin’, ‘Keitt’ (the largest, 20 – 26oz), ‘Haden’ and ‘Tommy Atkins’.  Slices of peeled, unripe, green Mango, sprinkled with salt, are a popular snack amongst the locals.

Here in Costa Rica, Mangoes begin to produce flowers in December – January with the onset of drier weather.  A distinct, annual dry season is necessary and unseasonal, wet weather will hinder cross-pollination and fruit production.  A Mango tree produces thousands of tiny flowers, but the majority self-abort, leaving only a hundred or so per tree to mature and produce fruit. A Mango flower will produce harvestable fruit in 90-150 days, depending on the cultivar. Our peak Mango time is February – April.

Mango trees can be produced by seed, but the fruit quality/ flavor will not be desirable.  Commercial growers of Mango trees use seedlings produced by the seed only as the rootstock – the bottom portion of the tree- which contributes physical characteristics such as tree height.    Varieties used in commercial fruit production are grafted, the same as apples and peaches.  A short stem or individual bud from a tree with desirable fruit characteristics is spliced (grafted) onto the rootstock. This horticultural technique ensures quality fruit.

A fungus called Anthracnose, which causes black spots on leaves and fruit, is one of the biggest cultural problems in Costa Rica, so yes, fungicides, and insecticides, are commonly used in commercial production. Fruits at harvest are typically plunged into hot water to kill the fungus, but this does not remove the cosmetic black spot. Fortunately, organic Mango production is making headway in Costa Rica.

The milky sap (which later turns translucent) that exudes from certain parts of the stem, and the peel of unripe fruits, contains mangiferen, mangiferic acid, and mangiferol.  These resins are potent skin irritants, capable of causing a similar allergic reaction to that of poison ivy (also in the Anacardiaceae family). Hypersensitive persons may react with considerable swelling of the eyelids, the face, and other parts of the body.  When mango trees are in bloom, hypersensitive people may also experience itching around the eyes, facial swelling and respiratory difficulty, even though there is no airborne pollen. The irritant is the vaporized essential oil of the flowers which contains the mangiferol and mangiferone. Mango wood should never be used in fireplaces or for cooking fuel, as its smoke is also a strong irritant.

Contrarily, various parts of the Mango tree are beneficial for humans and can be used as a home remedy for various ailments including the alleviation of menstrual cramps and heavy menstruation, treating skin diseases like scabies, strengthening the liver, combating asthma and coughs, as an antiseptic, for healing wounds, reducing diabetes, aiding in digestion and for reducing enlargement of the gall bladder. Research has also revealed that the mangiferin substance found in Mangoes helps to prevent certain types of cancerous growth even in its advanced stage.

Mangoes are rich in antioxidants such as beta-carotene and high in vitamins. One hundred grams of the fruit’s pulp provides Vitamin C (27 g), Vitamin A ( 1,000-3,000 I.E.), Vitamin E, Vitamin B6 (0.134 g),  Potassium (156 mg), Calcium (10 mg), Magnesium (10 g), Iron (0.12 mg), Zinc (0.04 mg) and abundant natural fiber.

Some fascinating research has discovered that Mango leaves absorb an abnormally high amount of sound waves due to their unusual arrangement within the tree and, therefore, can be useful in noise pollution control. This leaf arrangement characteristic also gives them a greater ability to reflect heat and provide a greater amount of dense shade. Mango trees are also very long-lived trees, with some recorded specimens reaching 300 years old.

Above all, Mangoes are a refreshing culinary delight. A Mango festival at the future botanical garden will enliven our senses and broaden our horizons as to the cultivation and the many uses of the “King of Fruits”.

Donna is a Horticulturist and has been living and working in Manuel Antonio for 7 years.  She consults, designs, installs and maintains gardens for private homes and hotels and also develops botanical trails. Donna is the founder and first Director of the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks and is pursuing the development of a botanical garden in, and for, the Quepos area. [email protected], 2777-5149.