Juicy, delicious mangos are one of my favorite tropical fruits.
Mango trees have been around for about 50 million years. This means mangos were around for the mass extinction of the Cretaceous Era, through the extreme climate changes and carbon cycling seen at the end of the Paleocene Era, and again today. Hopefully, mangos will continue to thrive.
Native to South Asia, mangos (Mangifera indica) were part of the spice trade of the 15th and 16th centuries. They were brought to the colonies in the 17th century but, because refrigeration was unavailable, those mangos were pickled. Due to poor communication, other pickled foods, such as sweet peppers, were also referred to as mangos. For a time, the word mango was a verb that meant “to pickle”. But I digress.
Types of mangos
You may be surprised to learn that there are over 500 mango cultivars. In commercial mango orchards, these cultivars are often interplanted to improve pollination. The current market leader is the ‘Tommy Atkins’ variety, due to its nice appearance, productivity, disease resistance, and shelf life. Other, less resilient cultivars, such as ‘Alphonso’, are said to provide better eating enjoyment. With so many cultivars to choose from, home growers can afford to be picky. And those mangos you buy in the store? Many of them (like many other fruits) are picked unripe, so they will never attain the rich flavor of a tree-ripened mango. These climatic fruits do continue ripening after leaving the parent plant, but their flavor is never quite what it could have been. [Keep in mind, when you buy mangos at the store, each fruit is picked by hand, then washed, polished, and stickered by people working in warehouses.]
The mango tree
Mangos are stone fruits, right along with apricots and cherries. And that large flat seed - it’s a drupe. Like legumes, pineapple, sorghum, and sweet potatoes, mangos have evolved alongside a helpful bacteria (Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus) that fixes atmospheric nitrogen, making it available to to the plant and its neighbors, until it goes to seed.
Mango trees are big. When I say big, I mean that they can reach heights of over 130 feet. The crown can be 30 feet across and these trees can produce fruit for more than 300 years. [For comparison, the standard, commercially grown nectarine tree is only expected to produce fruit for 15 years.]
Before you let that size scare you off, know that most commercially grown mango trees are pruned to more manageable sizes, and you can, too.
Mango trees have an extensive root system. They produce a taproot that may go down 20 feet and abundant feeder roots that spread out both horizontally and vertically.
Mangos are evergreen trees with large, broad leaves that start out orangish-pink, and then turn dark shiny red before maturing to dark green. Mangos produce small, white, fragrant flowers in clusters, called panicles. These flowers are pollinated by insects, but it is estimated that less than 1% of the flowers produced by a mango tree will every mature to form a fruit. It takes 4 to 5 months to go from flower to harvestable fruit. And you know that red blush on mango fruit? It has nothing to do with ripeness or sweetness. Instead, it is an indicator of how much sun that side of the fruit was exposed to as it grew.
Inside that delicious fruit is a drupe that fights being removed with every fiber of its being. The reason for this is because mangos, along with avocados, lychees, and cocoa seeds cannot tolerate being dried out or too cold. This type of seed is called recalcitrant. Recalcitrant seeds, also known as unorthodox seeds, lose their viability when stored. Other orthodox seeds can tolerate varying degrees of cold, dryness, and storage time. [Note, the stories about seeds from King Tut’s tomb germinating are bogus.] If you want to grow a mango tree from a pit, your odds will improve significantly if you start it right away. Most commercially grown mango cultivars and bare root stock are grafted onto sturdy rootstock.
Before you start growing your own mango tree, you may want to find out if you are sensitive to the oils found in mango stems, sap, and leaves. Some people are sensitive, while others can be severely allergic. Also, mango trees are killed by extended exposure to temperatures below 30°F. If your microclimate receives substantial frost, you may need to protect your tree in winter. If you enjoy snowy winters, you may want to try growing a dwarf mango indoors and pollinating it by hand.
Commercially grown mango trees are often girdled by professionals to increase the sugar content of the fruit, but I advise against this practice, as it can kill your mango tree if done incorrectly.
Mango pests and diseases
Sadly, mango trees are susceptible to a wide variety of pests and diseases. This list is so long that I encourage you to skip it (unless you are really into this sort of thing). If you own a mango tree, you should familiarize yourself with each of these conditions and their treatments.
According to Wikipedia, bacterial diseases of mango include bacterial fruit rot, crown gall, and bacterial canker. Fungal diseases of mango include alternaria leaf spot, anthracnose, black banded disease, black mildew, black mold rot, black rot, blossom blight, blue mold, branch canker, branch necrosis, ceratocystis wilt, charcoal fruit rot, charcoal root rot, crown rot, crusty leaf spot, curvularia blight, felt fungus, fruit rot, galls, gray leaf spot, hendersonia rot, leaf blight, leaf spot, macrophoma rot, fusarium dieback, mucor rot, mushroom root rot, phoma blight, phyllosticta leaf spot, pink disease, powdery mildew, Rhizopus soft rot, various root rots and seed rots, scab, sclerotinia rot, shoestring rot, sooty blotch, sooty molds, stem canker, stem end rot, stem gall, stemphylium rot, stigma leaf spot, tip dieback, transit rot, trunk rot, twig blight, verticillium wilt, white sooty blotch, wood rot, and various forms of dieback. Fixed copper sprays are the most common treatment for many of these fungal diseases.
If that weren’t enough, dagger, lance, and sheathed nematodes, vine mealybugs, guava fruit flies, Mexican fruit flies, melon flies, polyphagous shothole borers, and Oriental fruit flies will attack mango trees, as will an algae that causes red rust, along with a parasitic lichen. Copper, zinc, and boron deficiencies can also cause problems, while too much nitrogen combined with not enough calcium can cause a condition known as soft nose. It’s a wonder we get mangos at all!
Mangos, like most other tropical fruits, produce significant amounts of ethylene gas, a ripening agent. If you need to speed ripen an avocado for guacamole, put it in a paper bag with a mango.
Did you know that mangos are related to cashews?
Now you know.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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