The mango is king of the Miami summer
By Patricia Mazzei
The air gets thick with humidity as summer arrives in South Florida. Evening thunder murmurs. The tropics begin to stir.
Then, something magical happens: The mango trees bear fruit. In good years, they produce so much that strangers give away mangoes on their lawns. Neighbors pack them in boxes to mail to loved ones. Friends offer homemade pies.
This has been a very good year.
During the month of June, Zak Stern, the founder of Zak the Baker, his bakery in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood, invited customers to bring in six local mangoes in exchange for a loaf of bread. He started taking in about 200 a day.
“I think we’ve got enough mango jam for, like, the next five years,” he said.
The Miami summer scares off tourists and part-timers who only care to experience the glorious winter. The roads get emptier. The days get slower.
The reward for hardy locals who remain year-round, sweating and suffering through hurricane season, comes in the form of the seductive mango, blushing from trees in yards, streets and strip malls.
“This,” said Stern, who grew up in suburban Kendall, “is a gift to the folks who stay.”
What he and other South Florida mango evangelists cherish most about the peak June-to-August season is how sharing a beloved fruit brings people together in a relatively young, multinational city with few widely shared traditions. Mangoes remind immigrants of the places they left — and help them feel like Miami, with its hodgepodge of cultures and languages, is home.
“For people who are originally from tropical countries — say, Southeast Asia, or the Caribbean, or Latin America — they grow up with mangoes,” said Jonathan H. Crane, a tropical fruit crop specialist at the University of Florida’s tropical research and education center in Homestead, south of Miami. “So there’s a connection with mangoes from their childhood.”
I grew up with mangoes in Venezuela but did not fully appreciate their succulence until I moved to Miami two decades ago. Without a yard of my own, I trawl the suburbs for fruit residents put out for sale, saving some for my mother’s mango ceviche. A friend hosts an annual mango daiquiri party that has become one of my favorite ways to celebrate the start of summer. Inevitably, it rains.
Most everyone has mango stories. Stern likes to eat them over the sink, juice dribbling down his chin. Xavier Murphy, who is from Jamaica, has gone through such lengths to try to protect his East Indian mango tree from hungry wildlife that one year, he used his children’s life-size cutout of a Jonas brother as a scarecrow. (It worked, for a while.) Natalia Martinez-Kalinina, who was born in Cuba and raised in Mexico, bakes mango pies in honor of her grandmother, who would give away buckets full of mangoes every summer in Cuba.
“It’s become this really lovely communal exchange,” Martinez-Kalinina said. “People text me and say, ‘I have mangoes — do you need more for mango pie?’”
Mangoes originated in Southeast Asia and were spread by colonists across the globe — including, in the mid-19th century, to South Florida, where wealthy landowners cultivated them as a potential moneymaking crop. But workers from the Bahamas and Cuba also brought seeds in their pockets because the fruit reminded them of home, said Timothy P. Watson, an English professor at the University of Miami who is working on a book about the history of mangoes in Florida.
“They literally mix here in Miami,” he said of the varieties from around the world. “The combination produces mango culture, which is now one of the very few things that joins people together in this incredibly fractured metropolitan area. It’s a complicated story — and a bitter story, in many ways.”
Florida mangoes dominated the commercial market in the United States until Hurricane Andrew destroyed nearly half of the state’s groves in 1992. International trade agreements then made it cheaper to import mangoes that had once grown in Florida from Latin America and the Caribbean. Perhaps 1,500 acres remain in Florida’s mango industry, Crane estimated.
Cold weather hurt the crop last year, but a more typical winter and spring led to a bountiful harvest this year, with no biting temperatures to threaten the fruit or the flowers that precede it.
Although commercial operations have mostly withered, mangoes still thrive in backyards and in the small specialty market, Crane said, as mangophiles demand varieties that cannot be found in grocery stores.
“I like anything but being bored,” said Walter Zill, 81, who sells mangoes from the roughly 40 varieties he grows with his wife, Verna, in the Palm Beach County city of Boynton Beach. “A person can eat a lot of mangoes without ever getting tired of them.”
His brother, Gary Zill, grows some 90 varieties to sell in nearby Lake Worth, including nearly two dozen of his own cultivars with names like Coconut Cream and Pineapple Pleasure. In the 1960s, his father’s nursery sold a mere 16 varieties.
In the upscale Miami suburb of Coral Gables, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden has 550 varieties of mango, one of the most diverse collections in the world. Bruce Greer, the president of the board of trustees, helped start an annual mango festival. Now in its 30th year, it is expected to draw as many as 8,000 visitors this weekend.
A few months ago, Greer’s sister came to town and wanted to take her daughter to see the house where she and Greer lived as children. The two mango trees their father had planted in the early 1960s — a Haden and a Kent — were still there, thriving.
“I literally remember my dad putting them in when I was 6 years old,” said Greer, who has 22 trees of his own. “They went through I don’t know how many owners. They went through my whole life.”
That inspired Greer to envision a new “Million Mango Project” for Fairchild to promote tree plantings across Miami, with the goal of bringing people closer to the prized fruit and shade to neighborhoods with limited tree canopy.
“We’re going to reintroduce these mangoes into the landscape,” he said.
Two years ago, shortly after moving into a historic home in Coral Gables, Catalina Saldarriaga found herself inundated with fruit from two big mango trees on her property that she thinks must be at least 60 years old. This year, she is again collecting 70 to 80 mangoes each day.
“It may be my favorite fruit,” said Saldarriaga, 64, who grew up in Colombia with much smaller mangoes. “But you can only eat one or two a day.”
She gives the rest to friends, family, her cleaning lady, the contractors fixing her pergola. The mangoes that fall to the ground, uneaten by iguanas, birds or squirrels, she leaves out on a grassy patch by her driveway for passersby to take for free.
One man stopped on his bicycle to thank her. Someone left flowers.
“What a delight,” she said, “that someone else can also enjoy them.”