It starts in February, the first blossoms on mango trees in Southwest Florida. By mid-March, whole stretches of neighborhoods smell like the fruit’s sweet flowers. Soon after, the first tiny mangoes appear. In April, they go from dime-sized to quarter-sized to the size of a dollar bill. By late May, the earliest varieties begin to ripen. Tommy Atkins, then Carries, Hadens and Valencia Prides with Kents late in the season—a bounty that defines the summer months in our region.
Mangoes are indigenous to India and Southeast Asia, with climates like ours that experience hot, humid summers and warm, dry winters. Historians believe that Buddhist monks spread mango cultivars to eastern Asia in the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. By the 10th century A.D., it was the Persians doing the spreading, this time to East Africa. Then it’s said the Portuguese spread the fruit to West Africa and Brazil in the 16th century. From Brazil, mangoes spread to Barbados, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. By the early 1800s, mango trees were growing in Mexico. These are the trees, seedlings from the Yucatan, that eventually reached Cape Sable, the southernmost tip of mainland Florida, in 1833. Mango orchards had spread across South Florida by the second half of the 19th century.
I have memories of mangoes from my travels—yellow slices in a green bowl in Senegal, stewed with coconut milk in Vietnam, sprinkled with cayenne in Guatemala. But my most powerful memories are far simpler: my mother, paring knife in hand, standing over the kitchen sink of her Fort Myers Beach home, with a ripe mango in her grasp. She’d slice a piece for me, then a piece for herself, and we’d eat them side by side, juice running down our chins.
True mango lovers like to compare the size of the pit and the stringiness of the fruit. I’ve heard mango aficionados wax poetic on a mango they once ate with a pit like a sheet of paper, so thin it was nearly translucent. Compare this to the maligned mangoes whose ginormous pits crowd out the sweet flesh. And a stringy mango? A tragedy. Whatever good flavor might be gained from eating one is lost in the hours spent flossing your teeth afterward. I’ve known neighbors to shake rueful heads over stringy-fruited trees, dismissing the whole harvest. What’s optimal? You’re after fleshy fruit with an interior as smooth and fiber-less as a peach.
Though mango trees are ubiquitous in local backyards, the undisputed mango-growing epicenter locally is Pine Island. The barrier island is just right for mango production. The trees like full sun, and they hate cold weather. They need well-drained soil to thrive, and they don’t like excessively wet conditions. A good harvest optimally prefers dry weather before and during the springtime bloom.
In past summers, as the days grew increasingly hot and humid, I would make the trek to FruitScapes, my favorite Pine Island nursery. A fruit stand at the front features everything from fresh sugarcane to dragon fruit to lychees. The stand offers a number of varieties of mangoes over the course of the summer, from the delicately sweet Nam Doc Mai to the piña colada-flavored Pickering. Some are the size of footballs; others fit snugly in the palm of your hand.
This summer, though, is different. I have my own mango harvest. I planted a Kent tree in the middle of my backyard when I moved into my house five years ago. I’ve watched it grow from a hip-high sapling to a stalwart tree with branches that tower over my head. I’ve tended it with devotion, and this year for the first time, I watched the blooms turn into pea-sized fruit. I like to think I’ll be generous and share with my neighbors when I welcome my first crop this year. But, if I’m honest, I’ll probably eat them all myself, standing at the kitchen sink, juice running down my chin.