The Key West Mystique

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Key West mango

Key West mango season | Please. No more.

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

06/25/2023

We’ve reached the point in the Key West mango season when friends, upon greeting me in the street, surreptitiously look to see if I’m carrying a 15-pound shopping bag. They don’t even bother to hide the relief when I am sans bag. It’s true. By the end of June, even ardent mango lovers are done with the fruit.

Takers are few for my free-to-a-good-home bags on the fence. We are done, kaput, satiated with mangoes. I mean, how many mangoes can one eat in a day if they’re two pounds each, which ours tend to be? One? Maybe a couple more if you make a cobbler, a smoothie and some salsa and chutney. I am particularly partial to my mango cornbread with spicy chili mango butter.

Key West mango

A note: There’s about 500 calories, a boatload of sugar and almost no fiber in 32 ounces of fresh mango. It’s no a health food though it might be better for you than, say, Twinkies.

By the end of June, with quarts of frozen mangoes and sliced mangoes and cubed mangoes packed in the freezer, I’m so over the mangoes.

The first of June it’s exactly opposite. Back in those heady days, strangers hoped I’d show up with a bag of those perfectly tree-ripened, red and golden perfumed orbs. In mid-to-late May, I’ve got takers for the green ones. Two weeks later I’m the most popular girl at the dance. Two friends (God bless ’em) climb ladders and pick a bushel or two — or five before season ends. Even they’re not visiting now.

If the only mango you’ve had came from a grocery store or even a fruit market, you’ll not know the bliss of plucking a perfect mango off the tree in your side yard, pulling a sharp knife through the leather-like skin and licking 10 fingers as the brilliant yellow-orange juice dribbles across the kitchen counter.

A word about that juice: It stains. Everything. Even the paint on your kitchen cabinets and your favorite T-shirt. It. Won’t. Come. Out. If you’re wearing those clear plastic orthodontia braces, be warned. Mango juice stains them, too.

Another word: The mango shares DNA with poison ivy and cashews so if you’re allergic, be wary of the oils just under the skin of your mango. I’ve got a friend who can eat mangoes, but heaven help him if he has to cut it up himself. A rash every bit as bad as a roll in poison ivy. And, if you’re allergic to cashews and pistachios? Steer clear of mangoes.

And a third word: Mangoes are susceptible to all manner of things going awry, including the yucky looking (though apparently not harmful) “jelly seed.” That’s when a perfectly lovely on the outside mango ripens way too fast near the seed, turning firm fruit to soft jelly. And you won’t know until you slice it open. Jelly seed appears to happen most often with tree-ripened mangoes picked after the second week of June. That’s exactly ours.

Jelly seed isn’t well understood, but what we do know indicates too much nitrogen and not enough calcium — and that it doesn’t happen all the time. Our mangoes are pretty much organic, which I define as we don’t do anything to the tree but a little water and a little fertilizer. We’ll make some adjustments and hope for the best next season.

Key West mango

Key West mango | Gotta love ’em — or not

We know the mango tree in our side yard is at least 20 years old. Could be double. We’ve got a 1967 photo of the house with no mango and the tree was big and healthy when we bought the house.

Ours is a Haden mango, the ubiquitous South Florida variety discovered, so to speak, in the early 20th century by a retired U.S. Army officer living in Coconut Grove. In 1902, he planted four dozen Mulgova mangoes, of which one fruited into what became the Haden mango we know today. They do exceptionally well in South Florida and darn well down here in Zone 11.

A note: Haden and Hayden are used interchangeably in references to the mango’s namesake, Captain John J. Haden or Hayden. Even university-level research goes either way.

Whoever planted the Haden in our yard had no clue about trees, roots and canopies. Haden trees should be planted at least 25 feet from structures like swimming pools, houses, sidewalks and fences. Ours might, if we stretched the tape, be 10 feet from the house foundation and smack upside the wall of the pool. The roots are lifting the pool surround and one of these days they’re going to crack open the pool. Its canopy stretches over our roof and until we trimmed it back hard, it justifiably annoyed our neighbors.

The flowers clog the pool filter for weeks. The fruit drops on the roof like cannon balls run amok. It rots and stinks. The tree rats and the iguanas spend inordinate time snacking away. Its shade is lovely and a float in the pool looking up through the leaves is an afternoon’s delight. Until the iguana poops on one’s head.

We keep it fruit trimmed, meaning we top it out by about a third every few years. This keeps the tree healthy, its size manageable and its crops prolific. We did the last cut after season in 2021. We had no flowers or fruit in 2022. No worries; I still had the frozen mangoes from 2021. I tossed the rest yesterday to make room for 2023.

This season the old-growth, bottom third of the tree bore a banner crop. Next year, I suspect, the whole tree will be back with record-breaking blossoms and fruit.

I don’t know whether to rejoice or roll my eyes. Probably both. Want some mangoes?

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Avatar of Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

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