October 25, 2014

Pursuits: Savor the Fruits of His Labor

Mango man: David Burd’s house is surrounded by a thick forest of fruit trees, including 70 varieties of mango, which he harvests and sells at local farmers’ markets.  “If you pass it on, it’s going to continue to live.” —David Burd (ERIK KELLAR)David Burd is what you might call a mango maven. Out of the more than 1,000 mango varieties in the world, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Burd has sampled hundreds. Yet all he needs is a moment to summon the distinct, delicious memory of each standout fruit, such as the Coconut Crème mango. The fruit’s flesh literally tastes like the rich, decadent pie for which it is named, Burd says.

Then there’s the Manga Blanca mango. Burd describes a bite of this Cuban varietal as starting with a pop of smooth orange Creamsicle and finishing with the flavor of tangy tangerine.

“I see all these mangos and I get very big eyes,” Burd says. “If I taste it, I say, ‘I want, I want.’”

In total, Burd estimates there are some 70 mango trees in the dense jungle of his Naples backyard. Some are stocky, strong trees that Burd planted years ago. Others are little more than a few feet tall, tucked away in plastic pots.

All of them are unique, he says, like people. And just like people, they can be full of surprises: A mango may be beautiful to behold but ugly on the inside. The reverse is true, too, as a mango may appear ordinary but hold a complicated world of luscious flavor. With such possibilities, it’s no wonder that Burd believes mangos—and fruit trees in general—are more than a bit mystical.

“God is still in the creating mode with them,” he says.

There’s one mango that occupies an especially sweet spot in Burd’s heart. As the first tree that Burd successfully grafted, it was the Valencia Pride mango that helped Burd plant his roots as Southwest Florida’s own tree grafting guru.

With his wife, Jenny, Burd is the owner of Friendly Burd Tree Services in Naples; for the past 21 years, the couple has been a regular fixture at the Old Naples Farmers’ Market. Burd also leads tree grafting tutorials at the Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization (ECHO) in North Fort Myers, teaching missionaries and relief workers from the Third World how to put grafting to work in their own communities.

For these students, learning how to graft means being able to prune years off what it would usually take to raise a mature fruit tree, allowing them to produce a viable food source in a short period of time. Grafting also provides farmers with an opportunity to create trees that are able to withstand a variety of climates and environments. They’ll also know more about the characteristics of the fruit they’ll be producing, Jenny Burd notes.

“You’re putting maturity on that seedling,” David Burd says. “Instead of waiting eight years to get your first fruit on citrus, you’re only having to wait one to two years.”

Essentially, learning how to graft means the difference between health and hunger. That’s a difference Burd wants to make. 

“When you’re working with people from the Third World, you don’t want them to have these big bellies of malnutrition,” he says. “So you teach them.”

Through the years, Burd has watched as ECHO’s students learn to share his gift for grafting. During the grafting sessions, they’ll often ask him how they can take his skills back to their own country, only to return several years later and report of their successes.

“We’ve had Haitians come back from Haiti and say, ‘What you taught us worked. Now teach me so I can teach others,’” Burd says.

From his broad smile, it’s clear that this is the highest praise Burd can receive.

“It you pass it on, it’s going to continue to live,” he says.

Passing it on is not a problem for the Burds. Stop by their Naples home and you’re likely to leave with a grocery sack full of fresh fruit from their backyard, dried fruit from their kitchen, a few clippings to plant in your garden and fresh raw honey to swirl in your tea. About the only thing that David won’t give away is the location of a particular Manga Blanca tree in Old Naples where he likes to go to pick fruit.

“If we can’t bless each other, what good are we?” asks Jenny Burd.

“We might as well quit,” David Burd adds.

One thing he’s not likely to quit doing is grafting trees.

Fruit surprise: You can’t judge a mango by its cover. Some beautiful pieces of fruit are mediocre in flavor, while some of the best-tasting mangos don’t look so perfect. (ERIK KELLAR)In the early 1980s, Burd honed his grafting abilities through a program at the University of Florida in Homestead, traveling there once a month to learn. As part of the process, he had plenty of failures, but something made the Valencia Pride different. Looking back, Burd says he is surprised. There were so many things that he did wrong, it should have been a disaster, he admits.

After all, grafting is almost like doing surgery, he explains.

Your hands must be clean, free of oils, perfumes and chemicals. You must have the right tools. Most of all, you must choose the right botanicals, grafting plants that have a similar size and genetic composition. It’s a complicated balance, but when it’s all done properly, the result is exciting.

“It’s always a thrill when you get your first one that takes,” Burd says.

Just don’t ask Burd to name a personal favorite. Even after tasting hundreds, the best he can do is try to pick his top 20.

“There are so many that are just so awesome in taste,” Burd says. “I just can’t say I have a favorite.”

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