My obsession started like so many obsessions do, with a question so sticky, so delicious, it was impossible to ignore: Is the tree that gave rise to the entire mango industry in the western hemisphere still alive more than 110 years later in a Coconut Grove yard?
This wouldn’t be just any mango tree; this tree is the first of its kind, “the granddaddy of all Florida mangoes,” as one person later told me. It was the result of the first time anyone in America had successfully crossed two species of terrible mangoes and luckily — improbably, revolutionarily — created a mango that made people swoon.
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It was the first to ripen to a rosy blush, with a tropical piney scent. It was the first mango you could bite into without getting a mouthful of mango dental floss, and it was hearty enough to be shipped commercially all over the world.
Spicy, flashy, easy to fall in love with at first sight (or first bite): You might call it the most Miami mango ever — the Haden mango.
And all of it started with a single tree.
I consulted with experts, read the 100-year-old texts of the widow, pored over a 60-year-old report that seem to pinpoint the tree and even spoke to descendants who had visited the tree (and one neighbor who remembers bringing the widow fresh-baked cookies and taking mangoes in return).
All of it led to a single, ancient Haden mango tree that grows twisted in the stifling saltwater breeze blowing in from Biscayne Bay.
Experts who have seen it (and climbed it to gather fruit) say this tree is easily 100 years old. It has withstood hurricanes, dodged disease and escaped the maw of development. And all of it thanks to mango lovers, tolerant homeowners and dumb luck.
But is this the tree?
When John Haden came to Miami with his wife in 1896, he had heard about a crop of mangoes that a grower in West Palm Beach had produced from plants brought from India. So the Hadens sailed to West Palm Beach in 1902 and returned Coconut Grove with four dozen Mulgoba fruits — pretty, if small and mild tasting — that they planted on their property.
One of the 48 trees produced a fruit that was different. When it ripened, it didn’t go from green to yellow like other mangoes. It blushed. No other mango produced in Florida had ever done that before.
The red-and-gold fruit grew to the size of a softball, rounded like the often tiny mulgoba. Inside, it was a deep gold, almost orange, with the piney scent of a turpentine mango without being stringy.
In a few short years, tens of thousands of young Haden trees popped up in Miami and throughout the state grafted from that one tree. Florida became a major player in shipping Haden mangoes throughout South America and the Pacific.
It’s the improbability that caught my attention. How easily could that tree have been cut down over the last 100 years? All you have to do is look around and see the glut of newer houses around it. Imagine the many chainsaws it had to escape.
There’s nothing to protect a historic tree like this, not really. There’s no ordinance, no proclamation, not so much as a plaque to tell a homeowner of its history. There’s nothing to stop a new owner with no sense of history (or a taste for mangoes) from hiring a local crew to reduce it to kindling.
Roger Hammer had visited the tree with Carl Campbell in the early 1980s, when he still ran the 120-acre Castellow Hammock Preserve & Nature Center in the Redland, as a retired “long-hair hippie” environmental lawyer who lived for eight months in a Volkswagen van.
Hammer tells the story of visiting the country’s largest gumbo limbo in Miami to check on it after Hurricane Andrew on an assignment for the state. He found that new owners from Belize had moved in and razed it. The shade, they told him, was shrouding their impatiens.
“Somebody could buy that house and decide, ‘That thing sucks,’ cut it down and that’d be it. It’d be lost to history,” Hammer said.
That a 100-year-old mango tree survives in suburbia is a credit to homeowners like Rudy Kranys. The retired engineer bought the house on Klebba Lane, with the massive Haden out front, when he moved to Florida in the 1980s. He remodeled the house. But he never touched the tree.
“I thought, ‘These are better than anything I’ve ever tasted,’ ” he said.
Now Kranys is the keeper of the tree, a historical site that bears delicious fruit every year.
When I asked Noris Ledesma, curator of tropical fruit at Fairchild, to meet me to visit the tree, she immediately started climbing it.
She’s hopped up between the split trunk and plucked a pair of softball-sized mangoes. She hops down, holds the mangoes to her nose and breathes in their scent as she appraises the tree.
“This is a tree that’s been here for at least 100 years,” says Ledesma, author of more than 30 academic journals and contributor to eight different books on tropical fruits. “This tree has been here a long time.”
Looking at the branches, she can tell it has survived several hurricanes. The hurricane of 1926 would have blown in west, right to left, from the bay, and the tree leans to the left.
“This has been through three or four hurricanes, maybe more,” she says, placing her hand on the trunk and looking up into the canopy.
As I drive her back to her office at Fairchild, she points out smaller mango trees around the neighborhood. It’s clear, she says, that the Hadens’ discovery inspired others to plant clones of a mango unlike anything anyone had seen in Florida.
What John and Florence Haden started more than 100 years ago doesn’t end with a single tree.
“The original Haden is not gone,” Ledesma says. “It’s all around us.”