The Wild Gardener

Almost everyone has grown an avocado in his or her day, but have you ever thought of starting a mango tree? With today’s supersonic delivery systems, fresh mangoes often turn up in local supermarkets, in between the pomegranates and the kumquats — and you can always ask someone in Florida to ship a pit north.

Mangifera indica (from “mango,” the Hindu name for the fruit and “fero,” to bear) is believed to have first appeared somewhere in eastern Asia, where it’s been under cultivation for more than 4,000 years. Somewhere between A.D. 632 and A.D. 640, Hwen T’sang, a Chinese traveler, brought the tree to the outside world; by the 1700s, most of the nobility of Europe were growing mangoes under glass. The following passage is taken from an 1850 edition of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine:

“The mango is recorded as having been grown in the hot-houses of this country at least 160 years ago but it is only within the last 20 years that it has come to the notice as a fruit capable of being brought to perfection in England. The first and we believe the most successful attempt was made by the Earl of Powis in his garden at Walcot where he had a lofty hot-house 400 feet long and between 30 and 40 feet wide constructed for the cultivation of the mango.”

Obviously our local mangoes will be grown not for the fruit but merely as fascinating houseplants. The seeds (or pits) are rather perishable and will not tolerate much drying. Seeds kept at temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit do not germinate at all well, so don’t attempt it if the fruit has been refrigerated for long periods of time.

Wash the pit well, cleaning off the pulp, and plant it not more than 1 inch deep in sterile potting soil or any commercial grow-mix medium. Put the pit in a warm place (the warmer the better), trying to maintain at least 70 F. My first plant germinated in a compost heap (where temperatures in excess of 120 F are common) during the month of October. The sprout’s first appearance, I might add, was a surprise.

When the seedling is 6 inches tall, transplant it to a 6-inch pot, using equal parts good potting soil, composted manure and clean sand.

Give it plenty of water in the summer months, but let the soil dry out between waterings from September to March. Provide as much sun as possible, and always keep the mango warm (above 50 F). After about three years, this will force the tree to blossom. Fertilize every month during the summer.

As the tree grows, pot on to larger containers. You’ll find that the mango has a more attractive form than the avocado, and the leaves don’t brown as easily.

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