Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
I don't remember when I first tasted a mango, but it couldn't have been more than fifteen years ago. While mangoes are a relatively new taste to me, people have been consuming this fruit in South Asia for thousands of years.
Known as the "queen of fruits" and the "fruit of the gods", mangoes are an important part of the daily diet and special celebrations in many south Asian cultures.
Mangoes grow on a fairly large tree, ranging from 30 to 100 feet tall, with a few dwarf varieties available. The leaves are evergreen, six to fourteen inches long and two to six inches wide. Young leaves are pinkish orange and as they mature they turn glossy red then glossy green when fully mature.
The mango tree produces small white flowers borne at the end of branches in clusters called panicles. They have a scent much like lily of the valley. Once the flowers are pollinated, it takes anywhere from three to six months for the mango fruit to develop, depending on the variety.
Many fruit crops depend on honeybees for pollination of their flowers. Mangoes are somewhat unique in that honeybees are not the main pollinators. Other insects such as butterflies, moths, beetles, and ants are common pollinators. Mango flowers are also pollinated by fruit bats, a sight we never see here in Illinois!
There are many different mango cultivars grown in the world. Some experts estimate there may be anywhere from 500 to 1000 named cultivars. Each has unique flavor and color characteristics. Some produce fruit with flesh that is very fibrous and best used for juice, others have very smooth flesh and are great for fresh eating.
When mangoes are ripe, their skin is colored yellow, orange and red. The red color develops on the portion of the fruit that received the most sun. The parts of the fruit that were in the shade turn yellow when ripe. If the fruit is green, that portion of the fruit is not ripe.
In general, mangoes grown commercially are picked when mature but not fully ripe, so that they survive being shipped to market intact. Mangoes are also picked individually by hand, so that they are not bruised, which would result in a lesser-quality fruit.
Producers may expose the partially ripe mangoes to ethylene gas to hasten ripening before taking them to market. Ethylene gas is produced by ripe fruit, and it triggers unripe fruit to ripen. This is why putting unripe fruit in a bag with an apple will cause the unripe fruit to ripen. The apple gives off ethylene gas.
Mango flesh is typically a deep golden yellow, but the shade varies somewhat by variety. It may be eaten fresh or used in a number of different recipes, including jam, pie, chutney, juice, or as a dried fruit. To me the flavor of mangoes commonly available locally is somewhere between and orange and a peach.
Some cultures eat unripe mangoes, which are extremely sour, with salt and chili peppers. Unripe mango may be dried and powdered and sold as the Indian spice amchur.
Unfortunately, mangoes have some not-so-nice relatives in the plant world. Mangoes are in the family Anacardiaceae, the same family as Poison Ivy, Poison Sumac, and Poison Oak. Like its nasty relatives, mangoes produce the oil urushiol, a mixture of several chemicals that produces a characteristic skin rash in sensitive individuals.
Fortunately, only the mango tree's sap and the fruit's skin contains the urushiol, and it is produced in small quantities. Some sources say the fruit's flesh contains very low levels of urushiol. If a person is sensitive to urushiol, they may potentially have a reaction after touching the mango's skin, particularly if there is sap present.
Most people can manage sensitivity to the urushiol in mango skin by carefully removing all traces of the skin without contaminating the flesh with the same knife. Preferably they have someone else do this so they do not touch the skin themselves! If their reaction is extreme, some individuals may need to avoid eating mangoes.
Mangoes contain a very large, flat seed, and if you and your family are not particularly sensitive to urushiol, you may consider trying to grow your own mango tree. If nothing else, it will satisfy the urge to garden when the weather is uncooperative this time of year.
The mango seed is actually inside a tough outer husk. To germinate the seed, it works best to first remove the outer husk carefully with scissors or garden pruners, being careful not to harm the seed inside. The seed inside looks like a large bean.
Place the seed in a dish of water and let soak for 24 hours. Wrap the seed in damp paper towels and place in a plastic bag, leaving a corner open for ventilation. Put the bag in a sunny window. Check often to make sure the paper towels have not dried out, and watch for the seed to sprout within a week or two.
When the seed has sprouted and there is a recognizable shoot and root, plant your mango seedling in a standard well-drained potting mix. It is a tropical plant, and should be overwintered indoors like any houseplant. In the summer place it outside and give it lots of sun and a dose of well-balanced fertilizer. It may never produce fruit–a tree will take six years or more to flower and fruit, but it is a fun experiment.