12 Jul 2014

Mango…mango!

By Jorge Ventocilla

Mango production is different every year; and every season is different for each and every mango tree. Some experts say that it all depends on the characteristics of each dry season. They also say that different branches produce different amount of mangoes and I see mangoes everywhere.

Coming back from the countryside a few weeks ago, I was looking at the landscape through the bus window, at least visible areas not hidden by advertisements, and found myself counting how many mango trees were along the road (per kilometer). I counted a minimum of fifteen trees per kilometer.

There are so many mango trees in Panama that it may lead us to think that they are native to this country.  Truth be told, Mangifera indica, scientific name of the tree, comes from India; Eastern India, Myanmar (Burma) and Andaman Islands, to be exact.

I have read that men have been growing and selecting mango varieties for almost six thousand years, and that Buddhist monks may have introduced it to Malaysia and Eastern Asia, four or five centuries BCE. Persians may have taken it to Africa, perhaps a thousand years into the Common Era. Then the Portuguese introduced it to Western Africa (16th century) and to our continent, through Brazil.

By the end of the 19th century, mango trees were present in almost every place in the world suitable for its cultivation.  Mango is one of the most frequently seen trees in lowlands (humid or semi-arid) in tropical areas today. Men still do some selection for getting better tasting, larger fruits, with less fiber or a smaller stone.

I would have liked to provide the information about introduction of mango to Panama. Unfortunately, I don’t have the exact data. When the Summit (Center for the Introduction and Propagation of Tropical Species) was created, at least fifteen different mango species were brought from Cuba and planted there.  

I have been told that there are still mango trees from those planted back then, they are now part of the nearby jungle. Recently, new and improved varieties have been brought to the country by agricultural cooperation agencies. These have been brought mainly from Bolivia.

The wide variety of shapes, sizes, colors and quality degrees is then a natural result of so many years of mango cultivation. More than 50 mango varieties have been found in India alone. Certainly, most mango trees have a biannual production. Every branch is different and they all produce fruit at different times.

How much does a tree produce? It depends on variety and age (compared to other tropical trees, mango trees have a longer life). According to books on the subject, a 10 to 20-year old tree can produce between 200 to 300 mangoes; double the age, double the production.  30,000 kilograms per hectare are reported for commercial production in Florida.

India is responsible for more than half of mango production in the world, with a million hectares dedicated to its cultivation. India is also the top exporter of processed mango.  Thailand, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Brazil and Mexico follow India in production by volume. Dominican Republic and Colombia are among the top ten producers of mango.

Some time ago I met with an expert in trees, José Deago, a fellow botanist. He began talking about popular mango varieties in our country.

“The type of mango that is more commonly seen in the city is the ‘papayo’.  Street vendors offering popular ‘mango salad’ use this type of mango. This is a rather large mango, with little fiber and sweet taste. Its pulp has a pleasant texture that makes it edible ripe or non-ripe”, according to Jose.

“The ‘carate’ or ‘hilacha’ has the most fiber and its quality is not the best. However, the tree is very resilient and grows easily. The ‘piro’ type is the best for making mango sweets.   This type of mango is hard to find in Panama City but I know it grows in large numbers in Parita, by the Santa Maria River, where I used to play as a kid.”

“Many people think the ‘calidad’ (quality) type is the most delicious one. It is a small and fragrant mango. It is rarely seen or sold in Panama City, but people can tell it apart by its smell.”

“Another type of mango is the ‘torcazo’, with a purple skin. It is very rare and its production is not large. Its quality is very good, but it is hard to make it grow.  What about ‘huevo de toro’, with its long, not-so-sweet fruit? We mainly use it as a base for grafting”, explains José.

A friend of mine says that she thinks there is not such a thing as a “normal” or “plain” mango, since mangoes are subject to many popular names (chancleta, huevo de toro).

We better enjoy this fruit while it is in season. I would dare to say that they taste better if we know more about their interesting history.

English translation by Sara I. Melo D.

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