Want to Meet Your Neighbors? Plant a Mango Tree

published Aug 20, 2017
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(Image credit: Victoria Fedden)

Here in tropical South Florida we have two seasons: the tourist season and the rainy season. Our summers are stormy. Showers every afternoon are the norm, and in the daily deluges our backyard gardens wither as mosquitoes whine, and hurricanes churn out in the Gulf. I often joke that I get reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder living here between May and September because the weather’s so glum. It’s not all bad, though! The absence of tourists means traffic jams are nearly non-existent, as are the waiting lines at our favorite restaurants. But the real bright side of South Florida summers is that it’s finally mango season again.

I start counting down around February when the trees bloom. Their flowers aren’t pretty, and they produce a pretty nasty pollen, but that only lasts about a week before teeny mangoes the size of rosebuds begin to dot the branches. I keep my eye on them for the next several months. The fruits grow slowly, and they take forever to ripen — sometimes up to five or six months — and my husband likes to remind me that a watched mango never falls. During the springtime, I can’t keep myself away from the tree alongside my house. It was a deciding factor in our home’s purchase, after all, so I visit every day, practically begging the fruit to hurry up. I’ve been known to climb into its basket of branches to squeeze the mangoes, but they’re always hard as coconuts.

Until one day, usually in mid- to late-June, they aren’t and it’s finally time to celebrate, because summer’s officially arrived.

When I think of summer food, I crave grilled mahi with black bean mango salsa. Suddenly, my mouth waters for pulled pork smothered in mango BBQ sauce. I slice mangoes and toss them in salads, and scatter the golden crescents on piles of cold sesame noodles alongside the shredded cucumber and green onions. They’re good on turkey tacos, or peeled and eaten while standing over the kitchen sink. My daughter picks the fresh mangoes off the ground, rips off the skin with her fingernails and devours them whole with such gusto that I have to hose her down afterward. Dessert is the best, of course. During the dog days of summer, when the thermometer barely dips below 90 degrees (even at night), there’s nothing like cardamom rice pudding jeweled with diced mango, icy from the fridge.

Seven years ago, when we first moved in, my neighbor showed up on my doorstep one afternoon after a fierce thunderstorm. It was so sweltering that steam rose from the blacktop. I was enormously pregnant at the time, admittedly miserable, and when my neighbor handed me a frosty glass dish of her homemade Thai mango sorbet, well, I melted. Scented with lime and lit with a pinch of cayenne, the sorbet was one of the most unusually wonderful things I’d ever tasted. It was so good that my neighbor ended up giving me the entire batch.

“I can make more,” she laughed. “My tree drops at least 20 mangoes a day.”

There’s a saying in South Florida’s Cuban community: “Si tienes que comprar mangos, no tienes amigos.” The basic idea is that if you live in South Florida and you have to buy mangoes at the store, you don’t have any friends. It’s true, I learned. There are more homes here with prolific mango trees than without, so in the summer everyone’s trying to give their mangoes away. By July, you’re likely to receive a few phone calls from long-lost acquaintances.

“I know we haven’t talked in awhile, but are you interested in some Hayden mangoes?” they’ll say.

“I’ve got Van Dykes. How about a trade?” is my usual reply.

Here’s the thing with all these mangoes: They aren’t just a measure of the friends we already have. They bring new friends, too.

Some say that if you want to meet people, get a dog to walk. This might be true, but I think free mangoes work just as well. They’re great ice-breakers. As an introvert, I sometimes struggle to make small talk, but when I bring bags of mangoes to social events, conversations start naturally. I take mangoes to church, book club meetings, to my work, and even to yoga class! But when you have a mango tree, you don’t even have to leave the house to make new friends.

Two summers ago, my husband and I found ourselves with a bumper crop. The tree made so much fruit that it was accumulating on our neighbor’s roof. Our neighbors had their own tree, of course, but were away for the summer and told us we could have their mangoes too. All night we listened to the conga beat of heavy fruit falling and drumming the ground, and it became our ritual to gather them from the grass at sunrise.

This was lovely for about a week. I delighted in the abundance, but quickly learned an important lesson: There is only so much chutney that one can boil, jar, and give away. I had reached my limit on salsa, syrup, jam, crumble, margaritas, and even shortcake. I had not, however, reached my limit on friendship, so I loaded brown paper grocery bags with as many mangoes as they’d hold, set them on my doorstep, and waited.

I had knocks within an hour. A family visiting from Brazil passed by and wanted some. A neighbor several houses down, with whom I’d never spoken to, ventured over, as did an elderly Vietnamese woman who lives two streets east. Yard-less apartment dwellers from the beach side of my neighborhood found their way to my doorstep too, and soon the mangoes were gone, leaving in their place something better: connection.

I may have had little in common with many of my neighbors, at least in terms of age, culture, and even language, but we were united by a common love of mangoes and actually, that’s enough. Whenever anyone stopped by for fruit, it seemed we always ended up chatting, taking a walk, or hanging out on my front step laughing into the late evening twilight. It felt right, like a special kind of summertime magic.

“See you next June!” I said to everyone when the last of the mangoes had fallen and been taken.

The mango tree needed a rest, and so did I.

The next summer, I wasn’t surprised when, right on time somewhere around mid-July, the knocks returned and I got a chance to catch up with neighbors I hadn’t seen in almost a year. This time they brought me orchids, meals they’d cooked, and small gifts for my daughter. I appreciated their tokens of appreciation, but what I most enjoyed was the camaraderie we shared during the hottest, wettest months of the year.

When my husband and I purchased our home, we’d looked forward to having our own fruit tree. We’d anticipated pies and smoothies, and we wanted our daughter to know where her food came from — to be able to trot into the yard and pick something delightful. What we didn’t realize was how the tree would bring us a sense of connectedness and community, and how it would brighten our otherwise dreary summers. The joke about Florida having only two seasons may be true in a sense, but I’d like to lobby for adding a third. Sure, we have the tourist season and the rainy season, but we’re also lucky enough to have mango season.