The History of Mangos in South Florida

It has been more than 200 years since mangos arrived in South Florida. Before 1900, only seedling mangos of turpentine were grown. Mangos arrived in South Florida when pirates surrounded Florida’s coasts, navigating tempestuous waters from Fort Myers down to Sanibel and Captiva Islands, south to Naples, and east to the coveted Keys.  The pirates that for generations had made this peninsula their home carried mango seeds with them.

Dr. Henry Perrine also attempted to introduce mango seedlings into Florida in 1833 but, unfortunately, these trees died from neglect following Perrine’s death. There are records of turpentine mango plantings along the Miami River in 1862 by Dr. Fletcher.  By that time other trees were grown successfully from seeds. Some used imported seeds from Cuba. 

The first successful introduction of grafted Indian varieties was made by Dr. David Fairchild in 1889, and the Mulgoba mango was one of these. None of these mangos made it except the Mulgoba tree. 

In 1910, A new mango tree grown in Mrs. Florence Haden’s backyard in Coconut Grove was a ‘Mulgoba’ variety. ‘Turpentine’ and ‘Mulgoba’ mangos made an unlikely pair — the rather pedestrian, fibrous; yet, spicy ‘Turpentine’ from the Caribbean lowlands and the refined, smooth-fleshed and delicate ‘Mulgoba’ of India — but in Mrs. Haden’s backyard, they were joined together and generated a new generation of mangos. The fruits produced by this marriage made for an eye-catching display of reds, yellows, and greens overlaid by a sea of white highlights and of excellent flavor. The new variety was named ‘Haden’ and quickly came to dominate the fledgling mango industry of Florida.

"Haden" mango

The Haden mango became popular early on and was the most popular commercially grown mango until World War II. The Haden is still a favorite back yard tree due to its delicious flavor. Other varieties became more popular to grow commercially because they could withstand the rigors of shipping, produced fruit more regularly and were more disease resistant.

‘Haden’ gave rise to the most important export mango cultivars in the world — the same cultivars that would come to dominate in Florida and abroad. From the seeds of ‘Haden’, came the sweet and spicy ‘Kent’ of Miami; the pastel-hued ‘Keitt’ of Homestead, and the gorgeous, firm and productive ‘Tommy Atkins’ of Fort Lauderdale. As to the identity of the fathers of these trees, there is only conjecture.

Many other Miami varieties are named after the people who discovered them. The Cushman, a yellow-skinned variety, was named after E.L. Cushman, who planted the seed in 1936. The sweet delicious favorite Kent was first planted in 1932 on the property of Leith Kent.

Commercial production of the fruit now spans six continents, but Florida is where most of the world’s commercial varieties were developed. The ‘Tommy Atkin’, ‘Keitt’, and ‘Kent’ remain the most popular commercial varieties in Mexico, Central America, Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil – these countries grow the majority of the mangos we can get at the store in the USA, but they were all developed in Florida more than 100 years ago.

In the 1970’s, the glory days of the Florida mango, local families farmed 350 acres of mangoes. The mango empire stretched over 20 miles, from the outskirts of Miami to the heart of Homestead. There were groves next to suburban subdivisions and groves planted right beside the wilds of the Everglades. 

But today, all that remains is a single five-acre orchard. Ninety-nine percent of the mangoes in American supermarkets are imported from South America and the Caribbean, though they were originally developed here in south Florida. 

Mangos can be grown on the east and west coast of Florida – in the west, from Tampa Bay southward, and on the east coast starting from Cape Kennedy, or in the frost-free areas throughout the Florida peninsula.

Every resident oif South Florida should have a mango tree. There are so many
opportunities for mangos in South Florida. Of the six hundred different varieties grown around the world, they are grown here. Small, manageable landscape trees that yield an ample harvest of beautiful and delicious fruit and disease-tolerant cultivars provide unprecedented opportunities for organic production to provide vital nutrition to our families. Early seasons help growers avoid the summer rains, superior mango genetics ward off the onslaught of disease, and backyard fruit offers practical sustainability.

This article was written by Noris Ledesma and originally published in the Miami Herald. Noris Ledesma is Curator of Tropical Fruit at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. Minor changes from the print version of this article were introduced to improve readability in a digital format.