ST. PETERSBURG — Mangoes are afoot. As in, watch where you’re stepping. They rain down from trees with weepy-looking leaves, thumping confused dogs, cracking windshields (at least one, for sure), splatting onto hot asphalt where their orange innards glisten among lava-red peels.
“I have never seen so many mangoes in my life,” said 35-year resident Connie Howard-Oliver.
People love mangoes. They are fiercely sweet and tart and juicy with colors like sunsets. They mark time, and our place on the map, with Pinellas County about as far north, for now, as they’ll grow.
Yard mangoes — fruitful this year, field reports say — taste better. Supermarket mangoes get picked before they fully mature to ensure they survive the journey to produce aisles. Store mangoes get parboiled, killing any fruit fly larvae, but also washing away that flavor-enhancing aroma.
A month or so ago, the mangoes reappeared on branches as little, green babies. We pointed them out on walks, before the heat was unbearable: “Look!”
We knew the mangoes were almost ready when the memes returned. Picture the image of a steely-eyed madman gazing from a window day and night, captioned, “Me watching my neighbor’s mango tree.”
The mangoes finally ripened in abundance in late June. Joy ensued.
They shipped mangoes in cardboard boxes to family in Virginia and North Carolina. They packed freezers with mango chunks and lugged crates to the office. The mangoes kept coming.
The squirrels and the “fruit rats,” one local said, had a “field day.” Flocks of feral parrots patrolling south St. Petersburg tore at them, and a pet crested gecko in Central Oak Park feasted. The Tampa Bay Rare Fruit Council held its annual mango tasting, sampling more obscure varieties.
When Deborah Bidwell-Tuthill delivered a shelf she was getting rid of to a neighbor she’d never met, she was treated to an impromptu trivariety sampling and invited back for more. Mangoes turned strangers into acquaintances. Yard mangoes were traded for frozen salmon, peppers and beans.
Tree owners posted mango giveaway signs in their yards, on Facebook, on Nextdoor.
The mangoes kept coming, and coming.
Now, the mangoes lie on shady lawns like stray cats. They roll out of driveways, clogging storm drains during hot afternoon rain. They weigh down tree limbs, resting on the roofs of parked sedans. They are piled by the mailbox in laundry baskets, doubled-up Publix bags and 5-gallon Home Depot buckets. No signs needed. People know.
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“Will you take some?” said Tammy Patel, when I parked in front of her Lakewood Estates home. Two giant trees that Patel’s late mother planted decades ago stand outside. One grew from a pit, the other from a sapling gifted by a neighbor. One makes big, red mangoes with smooth flesh. The other has small, yellow, highly fibrous mangoes that Patel says are better for juice.
Her kitchen counters are covered. Her garbage can overflows. Her freezer is packed. Patel diligently gathers mangoes daily after work. Good ones go by the street, the rottens go in the trash, yet her yard remains littered.
“Oh, it’s wonderful,” Patel said, in the high tone of a person telling a newspaper reporter what they think the reporter wants to hear. I stared for a moment. Patel grimace-smiled. “It is a lot of work. Will you take some?”
I agreed to one mango. She handed me two bags full.
“I’ve had ... enough,” Patel said. “Even the squirrels have had enough. They won’t eat any more.”
It’s a genuine, but not uncomplicated, love. She echoed others who spoke to me from their driveways or responded to calls for the hottest mango takes about hot, fermenting mangoes.
Backyard smells like a toilet wine factory.
It’s a full time job.
I love “mango.” I hate “mangoes.”
Others described the pain of learning they were allergic to mango sap. Mangoes belong to the same family as poison ivy. (“Don’t pick mangoes toward your face,” a University of Florida mango scientist cautioned).
Someone noted that mango season coincides with hurricane season, which recalled part of a 2001 poem by Victor Hernández Cruz.
With hurricanes it’s not the wind
or the noise or the water.
I’ll tell you he said:
it’s the mangoes, avocados
Green plantains and bananas
flying into town like projectiles.
Below any cautiously honest online comment about the burden of too-abundant yard mangoes came the inevitable, unknowing responses, always from non-tree-owners.
I’ll take them all! Or, Can’t we find a way to use them? People are hungry.
Yes, sure, thank you, let’s try, but there’s always more supply than demand, said Calvin Smith, sitting in his St. Petersburg driveway. All are welcome to pick his mangoes, but he institutes a policy.
“You take a good one, you throw a bad one” — into the trash can under his tree.
Smith has youthful memories of plucking mangoes from yards all over the city, especially in the Historic Gas Plant District that would be razed for Tropicana Field. They were sweet, but some were of the undesirable variety that tastes like turpentine.
About 600 varieties grow in Florida now, with many new ones introduced in only the past few years. The largest residential trees in St. Pete are 50, 60 or 70-plus years old and mostly only a handful of types, namely Hadens, which started in Miami, or Tommy Atkins.
Mangoes came to Florida about 130 years ago, maybe from Cuba, and were growing here at least by 1901, when the St. Petersburg Times described a Civil War veteran from Massachusetts growing them along 22nd Avenue South.
The Times’ archives suggest the mango headaches of today may have existed here a century ago.
For years in the 1910s, a household on Seventh Street South — where Bayfront Health now stands — bought newspaper ads touting mangoes for 10 cents a dozen. A society column from July 1913 describes an uproarious gathering where 25 ladies squared off there in a mango eating contest. Mrs. Melvina Pepper won by eating 10 mangoes.
Mrs. Pepper’s prize? “A fine basket of mangoes.” Parting gifts for the other ladies? More mangoes.
You have to get rid of them all somehow.
Hernández Cruz’s poem ends on what may be a fitting note:
If you are going out
beware of mangoes
And all such beautiful