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Article previously published in Florida Gardening Magazine Aug/Sep 2000

Merritt Island Mangos


When you think of tropical fruits, pineapples, coconuts, bananas and papayas are some of the first that come to mind. These popular fruits are proven favorites of Florida growers and consumers, particularly in the south. To many, however, the mango is the Queen of all tropical fruits, and it grows in the most surprising places.

The mango has been cultivated in Florida for over a hundred years. Its rich flavor makes it the undisputed favorite of fruit enthusiasts around the world. Floridians delight in the fact that, with proper attention, the trees not only survive, but also thrive as far north as Merritt Island, a barrier island on Central Florida’s east coast.

If your only experience with the mango has been with a store-bought, imported fruit, then you have not been introduced properly. Imported fruits sold by local grocery stores are selected for their shipping abilities and presentation skills. Everyone knows you can’t judge a book by its cover. Mangos are no different. The varieties that ship most easily can’t necessarily compete with the local varieties in terms of taste and texture.

Imported mangos are primarily from Mexico, where they are picked before developing the sweetness acquired by ripening on the limbs. They are also left stringy by the steaming and pesticide-dipping processes required of them before entering the country. In contrast, Florida’s choicest mangos have the advantage of being “Vine Ripened”, and are sweet, juicy and fiberless. Mango trees actually prefer Florida’s dry winters. They are surprisingly drought tolerate and seem to flower better when stressed by the dry conditions. They also enjoy the wet, monsoon-like weather felt in summer and fall, and thrive in the Florida heat.

The mango’s beauty is contained not only in its appearance but also in the complexity of its taste. Hints of peach, orange, grape, coconut, pineapple, and even apple can be identified in many of the best varieties. In some mangos, each and every bite is unique. When you find the perfect one, its texture is smoother than silk, without a hint of fiber. Its no wonder they are so highly esteemed.Photo of 'Glenn' Mango Photo of cubed and ready to eat Glenn

The mango’s history is as complex as its taste, with approximately 4,000 years on record. Scientifically known as the Mangifera indica, it is believed to have original roots in India and Southeast Asia, traveling to the far reaches of the tropics over time. It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that it was successfully introduced in Florida.

Mangos have evolved incredibly since their introduction, with the help of nature and mankind. Horticulture, agronomy, and home hobby have systematically and dramatically improved the selection and adaptability of the species. There are now over 500 named mango varieties, each having their own unique characteristics in terms of care and taste. Many varieties even carry the name of their breeder, a testament to the pride taken in the discovery of a new species.

The mango is classified as a tropical tree. Grown outside its native tropics, it must be protected from extreme cold, like that which accompanies artic fronts making their way down the Florida straits. Mature trees can survive a few degrees below freezing, but young trees and seedlings will die if exposed to temperatures approaching 32 degrees. The mango’s comfort zone tends to be in south Florida, where the weather most resembles the true tropical climate. The northernmost point of this “Mango Zone” is a virtual line drawn from Cape Canaveral through Orlando, across to St Petersburg. Merritt Island is at the northeastern edge of this zone, and by all accounts, shouldn’t produce the dependable and high quality mango found in the warmer regions of south Florida. Fortunately for many Central Floridians, it does.

Mangos are said to tolerate Merritt Island’s northern climate because the Indian and Banana Rivers surrounding it offer some degree of protection from the cold. When the cold becomes too harsh, Merritt Island growers know that it can be dangerous, and know when to take precautionary measures.

For example, ‘Banking’ is a technique that is commonly used to protect the trunk from a frost. It requires wrapping the trunk in newspaper and covering it with sand to form a pyramid shape about four feet high. Care should be shown to “bank” the tree above the graft union without injury to the bark. Only after the cold has subsided completely should the banking be removed, but if the tree does suffer slight frost damage, it can still re-sprout from the trunk and survive. (Univ. of Florida Cold protection tips)

Regardless of the temperature, mangos enjoy the right fertilizer. Organic fertilizers seem to work best because the mango’s leaf can get tip-burn from chemical fertilizers containing too much nitrogen, and the chemicals are also said to detrimentally affect the fruit. Fungicides are necessary on occasion as well because the mango is prone to varying fungi problems throughout the year. In the dry winter, sooty mold is most prevalent, and in the humid summer, it’s Anthracnose. To combat the problem, commercial groves typically use a copper based fungicide, which results in unblemished fruit. Fortunately, new fungi-resistant mango hybrids have recently been developed. Don’t be afraid to ask your local nursery if they carry them when you make your next tree purchase.

The Ensey’s, who originally harvested pineapples on the family plantation, introduced mangos to Merritt Island. The Apple Mango and old Turpentine Mango, from Spain, were the first to be cultivated, but Edward R. (Ed) Ensey introduced the Indian Sunset Mango, from India, in the early 1900’s. He ultimately established the mango as his primary crop. Since their introduction, “Merritt Island Mangos” have been successfully crossbred, establishing themselves as a recognized subset of Florida Mangos. Royal Purple, Orange Delicious, Cannonball, Osteen, and Rutledge are just a few of the better-known varieties. Second and third generation hybrids have also progressed to a point that they can rival any in the industry. These successes result from the extraordinary mix of genotypes found in the condensed area of Merritt Island, and from the special care that the owners provide.

Primarily responsible for the mango trade in Merritt Island, Ed Ensey became affectionately known as “The Mango Man” by friends, neighbors, and customers at his roadside stand. His groves once extended for several miles, and much of the property continues to be owned by his children. Other land, including that on which the original Ensey house stands, is owned by families like the Polliners, who symbolize the current Merritt Island Mango culture. With a unique and lavish home in desirable south Merritt Island, Kathy and Mark Polliner enjoy a waterfront home with access to both the Indian and Banana Rivers, and have the added bonus of mature mango trees. Although mango production doesn’t represent their primary occupation, their crops provide a desirable agricultural property tax break, and are popular with locals. Even without the use of pesticides, their trees and fruit represent some of the best in the area.

Unfortunately, all mango groves have not been so highly valued by new homeowners. The soaring property values in the area are slowly claiming Merritt Island’s fertile grounds, as residents opt for elaborate homes and manicured landscapes that make south Merritt Island a favorite of local scenic drivers. Luxury waterfront estates, some old and some new, line the narrow drive for several miles. Some were built only by sacrificing the mature mango trees already making their homes there.

Mango trees can be found comfortably snuggled away between some estates however, as an affirmation that the fruit continues to be prized. There appears to be hope that appreciation for the mango’s fruit extends to more than just commercial growers. In a place where mangos wouldn’t be expected to survive at all, it is a welcome sight to see.

Merritt Island Mango cultivar description link

David Reid

damy5@juno.com

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