Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Magnificent Mango

Species name: Mangifera indica

Common name: mango, Indian mango, common mango

Location: Dominican Republic

The mango tree, the largest fruit tree in the world, is native to India and Pakistan, but was brought very early in the domestication process to the Philippines (the native mangoes to India and Pakistan were once thought to be a different species than those in the Philippines, but now we know they're the same species with different locally selected features through traditional breeding). I was under the impression that "mangoes" were a single species with some variation in fruit characteristics due to traditional breeding, but it turns out that there are over 70 species in the Mangifera genus, about 25 of which produce edible fruit that are "mangoes." The Indian mango is the most commonly grown in the world, and other species are grown on a much more localized basis. This genus is in the family Anacardiaceae, which is probably a very unfamiliar name. It will be very commonly known once you know the common name: the Cashew family. It also has some other, not so nice members: poison ivy and sumac (a very popular ornamental genus). Both of these species can produce intense skin irritation and rashes, and some people being so sensitive to poison ivy that sumac (sometimes called staghorn sumac) and mangos produce the same effect. The cashew is only the seed of the cashew apple (which does look remarkably like a mango!), so it is unlikely that someone with a hyper-sensitivity to poison ivy would have the same result with a cashew.

You'll have to excuse my poor photograph of a mango inflorescence; the wind was blowing quite hard and it was nearly impossible to get the flowers still (I was even pulling on the bottom of the branch in the photo to try to stabilize the flowers...). I hadn't had any rum that day (yet), I swear! :) The flowers are usually quite inconspicuous, but the sheer number of them make a mango tree in full flower a sight to behold. Almost the entire tree turns yellow, and the scent is also quite impressive. Each flower, if pollinated, could become a mango. Some trees produce 20 mangoes per "bunch" during their peak in productivity! With hundreds of bunches on a tree, that's a whole lot of mangoes.

Mangoes are incredibly important fruits around the world for a variety of reasons. In India and Pakistan, the fruits are not only eaten (and if you go to an Indian restaurant, count the number of dishes that contain mango in some form!) but the mango tree leaves, skin of the fruit, and fruit itself is used in their traditional herbal medicines (called ayurveda). It is believed that the mango can clear the digestive tract that is blocked due to vatta or heat. This might sound like a bunch of hogwash, but if you consider how spicy some Indian food is (in other words, contains "heat"), the addition of mangoes to that dish, or eating them on the side, has a real calming effect on the taste buds and the esophagus leading to the stomach. In North America we wouldn't give these digestive issues the same fancy terms, but if you want spicy food to taste less spicy, eat it with a mango! To Hindus, the perfectly ripe mango is regarded as a symbol of high attainment and perfection, and Lord Ganesha is often depicted holding a ripe mango in either his trunk or in one of his hands. The mango itself is the national fruit of India, Pakistan and the Philippines, while the tree is the national tree of Bangladesh.