Those who sweat and suffer through June and July in South Florida are rewarded with mangoes blooming from trees in yards, streets and strip malls.
WHY WE ARE THERE
We explore how America is defining itself one place at a time. In South Florida, mango lovers turn to the fruit to build a sense of community during the grueling summer.
The air thickens with humidity as summer arrives in South Florida. In the evening thunder murmurs. The tropics are beginning to move.
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 six local mangoes in exchange for a loaf of bread. He started taking about 200 a day.
“I think we have 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 become emptier. The days are slowing down.
The reward for hardy locals who stay 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 Mr. Stern, who grew up in suburban Kendall, “is a gift to the people who remain.”
What he and other south Florida mango evangelists like best about the June-to-August peak season is how sharing a beloved fruit brings people together in a relatively young, multinational city with few broadly shared traditions. Mangoes remind immigrants of the places they left — and help them feel like Miami, with its mix of cultures and languages, is home.
“For people who come from tropical countries — say, Southeast Asia, or the Caribbean, or Latin America — they grow with mangoes,” said Jonathan H. Crane, a tropical fruit specialist at the University of Florida’s tropical research and education department. . center in Homestead, south of Miami. “So there is a connection with mangoes from their childhood.”
I grew up with mangoes in Venezuela but didn’t fully appreciate their succulentness until I moved to Miami two decades ago. Without a yard of my own, I trawl the suburbs for fruit trees for sale, saving some for my mother’s mango ceviche. A friend hosts an annual mango daiquiri party, which has become one of my favorite ways to celebrate the start of summer. Inevitably, it rains.
Most have mango stories. Mr. Stern likes to eat them over the sink, juice dripping down his chin. Xavier Murphy, who is from Jamaica, went to 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 Jonas brother as a scarecrow. (It worked, for a while.) Natalia Martinez-Kalinina, born in Cuba and raised in Mexico, bakes mango pies in honor of her grandmother, who gave away buckets full of mangoes every summer in Cuba.
“It’s become this really nice community exchange,” Ms. 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 all over the globe—including, in the mid-19th century, to South Florida, where wealthy landowners cultivated them as a potential cash 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 on the history of mangoes in Florida.
“They literally mix here in Miami,” he said of the varieties from around the world. “The combination produces a mango culture that is now one of the very few things that brings 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 once grew in Florida from Latin America and the Caribbean. Perhaps 1,500 acres remain in Florida’s mango industry, Dr. 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 largely withered, mangoes still thrive in backyards and in the small specialty market, Dr. Crane said, because mango growers demand varieties that are not found in grocery stores.
“I like anything but being bored,” said Walter Zill, 81, who sells mangoes from the 40 or so varieties he grows with his wife, Verna, in the Palm Beach County town of Boynton Beach. “A man can eat many mangoes without ever getting tired of them.”
His brother, Gary Zill, grows about 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 only 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 W. Greer, the chairman of the board of trustees, helped start an annual mango festival. Now in its 30th year, it is expected to draw up to 8,000 visitors this weekend.
A few months ago, Mr. Greer’s sister came to town and wanted to take her daughter to see the house where she and Mr. Greer lived as children. The two mango trees their father had planted in the early 1960s – Haden and Kent – were still there, thriving.
“I literally remember my dad putting them in when I was 6,” said Mr. Greer, who has 22 trees of his own. “They went through I don’t know how many owners. They’ve been through my whole life.”
This inspired Mr. Greer to envision a new “Million Mango Project” for Fairchild to promote tree planting throughout Miami, with the goal of bringing people closer to the prized fruit and shade to neighborhoods with limited tree canopy.
“We will 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 large mango trees on her property, which she believes must be at least 60 years old. This year she is again picking 70 to 80 mangoes a day.
“It may be my favorite fruit,” said Ms. 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 repairing her pergola. The mangoes that fall to the ground, not eaten by iguanas, birds or squirrels, she leaves on a patch of grass next to her driveway for passers-by to take for free.
One man stopped on his bike to thank her. Someone left flowers.
“What a joy,” she said, “that someone else can enjoy them too.”
Kitty Bennett contributed research.