Friday, May 29, 2009

Celebrate the Mango!

This post is all about mangoes on Saipan. This year's season is coming to an end, and I am sure that I am not the only one who will miss the fruit that is noted to be the most celebrated of all tropical fruits. This is my attempt in describing the different varieties that you can find in the CNMI.

Mango trees start flowering in January and February.Thousands of small, yellowish or reddish flowers are produced by a single tree in very showy, pyramid-like branched clusters that are about 6-40 cm (2.5 to 15.5 in ) in length. The flowers are supposedly 25% to 98% male, the are rest hermaphroditic, or having both male and female parts.
Most flowers start showing evidence of fruiting in February. I've heard people complaining for many months now of how dry it has been on Saipan and how we badly needed some rain. Mangoes however prefer dry weather in order for them to produce lots of fruits since rain washes away their pollen. It is said that they rely on some self-pollination to produce fruit, but rely more on insects such as flies, ants, wasps, butterflies, moths, beetles, and various bugs that seek the tiny flower's nectar. If we had anymore fanihi (fruit bats) then they would be excellent pollinators as well. Surprisingly, honeybees are not the best pollinators in this case!
By March, green mangoes are ready for harvest! People enjoy eating green mangoes because they are tart. They are also good for pickling. The locals adopted the word koko for pickled fruits or vegetables, from the Japanese, tsukemono. They usually artificially color mango koko with yellow or red food coloring. Green mangoes are also good for smoothies and Indian chutney. A good reason to eat them that way is for the high concentrations of Vitamin C.
In the Philippines, we like to eat our raw mangoes with shrimp fry paste or bagoong alamang to give it that salty-sour combination. On Saipan, the condiment concoction that is most popular for unripe mangoes is a mix of KoolAid punch powder, MSG (monosodium glutemate) or table salt (sodium chloride), and a type of pepper (fresh chilies or a chili sauce). The locals simply call this concoction "salt" mixing the sour taste of the mangoes with a mix of sweet, salty and spicy.It is a pretty tasty way to eat mangoes but it is not the healthiest as you can imagine!I actually sometimes prefer eating a mango this way just when it is starting to ripen so that the flesh is turning yellow, tastes between sweet and sour, and still firm. The locals call this stage, to'a literally meaning "ready for picking" or "mature".

Mangoes and Their Varieties
Mangoes are native to southern Asia mostly originating from eastern India, Burma, and the Andaman Islands. The name mango is derived from the Tamil word mangkay or man-gay. In India, there are over 500 named varieties (some say 1,000) that have evolved. Of course there is the chance that there are duplicates that were differently named, but there are at least 350 varieties that are commercially propagated. There are many different variations in the size, form, color and quality of the fruits. They may be shaped nearly round, oval, ovoid or kidney-like and lop sided. The following are some of the varieties I've sampled this year:

"Saipan" or Local Mango
These are the most common mangoes around. They tend to be slightly tangy and the flesh a bit stringy or fibrous. This type can be ripe and have skin color from green to pale yellow to orange and some have a bright red blush.The flesh is usually bright to slightly orange in color.

These are considered "Saipan" or Local as well, even though they did not have the reddish blush and maintained a green to yellowish skin color when ripe. Here is the bright yellow flesh with medium stringiness. I like the taste since it is a bit tart.The locals say that a Saipan Mango that has either rough skin (from being attacked by insects) or blackened skin is usually the sweetest pick of this kind.
The best "Saipan" or Local mangoes reputedly come from Tanapag and San Roque. At the height of the mango season, look for roadside vendors selling them by the baskets. Yum!

Carabao Mango
This is one of my favorites on island since the sugary flesh just seem to melt in your mouth. It is not as stringy as the "Saipan" mango and is shaped more ovoid. The skin does not turn yellow and has a juicy sweet aroma.

I am pretty sure that it is the same variety as the ones I had growing up called Kalabaw, the Tagalog word for carabao (water buffalo), but I am not sure what the difference is from the highly praised and heavily imported Philippine Super Mango. The Super Mango is yellow when ripe, not as ovoid, and almost has a "beak" in the terminal end. I do not think you'd come across any Filipino who would not laud this as the "best" and their favorite. I can't say the same though since I have not tasted close to all the different varieties from different localities. The Super Mango does seem to have a perfect blend of sweetness and tartness, and is almost fiber-free. The Carabao in the Philippines constitutes 66% of crop production.

Pico Mango
This is another popular Philippine variety like the Carabao. It is just as sugary sweet but a little more tart than the Carabao and a bit more fibrous. They say you can distinguish a Pico from other mangoes by the pronounced "beak" at the terminal end. The Picoalmost has the same shape as the Super Mango . In the Philippines, Pico represents 26% of mango crops produced.

Haden Mango
This is a well-known and popular variety. It is pretty funny that we get these imported from the States (either Hawai'i or Florida I think). Most of the time, we get them in between ripe and raw or to'a. It is a sweet variety, not so stringy and very attractive since it is round, bulbous, heavy and has an attractive blush.
Here's a more elongated sample of a Haden mango. I've heard some people call this variety "Apple" mango.
In the late 1800s, seeds of a good quality producing 'Bombay' mango from India of the ‘Mulgoa’ variety were brought from Key West and later to Cuba and Puerto Rico. A Miami-based Captain John Haden obtained seeds from these trees and planted them in Florida. The trees produced fruits years after his death and his widow named the best producing tree after him. It became the standard of excellence locally for many decades later and was very popular for export because of its tough skin. In Hawaii today, the Haden mango represents 90% of all commercial production almost 80 years after the arrival of the variety to their islands.

"Hawaiian" or "Indian" Mango
These samples were given to us with the name, Hawai'ian mango. They look like a small type of what we called "Indian" mangoes in the Philippines that I was familiar with while I was growing up. Their shape is a bit rounded or compressed. I remember that I liked eating these raw or to'a better than fully ripe.

The skin ripens to a light green to yellow color. This variety has a very strong turpentine-like smell and aftertaste making it unpalatable to some. I like eating it cold straight from the fridge since it takes away some of the aftertaste.

Panama Mango
The Panama mango has an almost orange-yellow pulp that is sugary-sweet, juicy and is very fibrous. One of my favorites varieties, it is quite elongated and flattened compared to the other varieties of mangoes found here on island.

Well, I hope you got to enjoy lots of mangoes on Saipan this season. We will have to wait another year for them to come back, or if you cannot wait, our sister Deece has made some terrific mango jam that you can enjoy off-season. Check out her blog or Expressions at the bottom of Capitol Hill. Thank you for talking stories with me once again.

Ti napu.

The Beachcomber

Want to read more? Check out the California Rare Fruit Growers and Julia Morton's famous Fruits of Warm Climates.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Eugenia- A Search for Royalty

Someone commented in an earlier post of mine about a tree called agatelang (Eugenia palumbis). That comment sent me off on a search to find more about this tree that they say is endemic to the Marianas and whose wood is hard and strong making it preferable for tool handles and coconut husking stakes.

The pretty name Eugenia means “well-born” or “royalty” in Greek. They belong to the myrtle family (Myrtaceae) of which the guava (Psidium guajava) is a familiar member. Other members are mountain apples or locally, macopa (Syzygium sp.) and gum trees (Eucaluptus sp.). From my readings, it appears that there are at least four species of trees that are of the agatelang genus in the CNMI: Eugenia palumbis, E. reinwardtiana, E. bryanii and E. uniflora. The first three are supposedly native trees and the last one is introduced.

Agatelang (Eugenia palumbis)
A couple of the locals I’ve talked to say that the agatelang is a very hard wood making it useful for ax and machete handles. I've seen the plant as a small shrub or a small tree up to 2-3 m tall. It grows in the limestone forest or on exposed cliff lines and terraces close to the sea. It is easy to spot once you are familiar with its small opposite growing, elliptic-ovate leaves that are narrow in the ends, thick, and 3.5-6 cm long. It is even easier to spot them when they are flowering. Their tiny white flowers are about 2-5 mm in diameter and resemble other flowers in their family having four round petals and multiple, almost fuzzy looking stamens. Fruits are 1 cm in diameter and they mature into a bright red color. One of the books I read says that E. bryanii is a close relative and “perhaps a variety and not really a species.” With no further clues to the difference, I am not able to tell the difference between the two.

I found an agatelang at Boy Scout Beach in June 2006 that was flowering.
I remember that I shared this excursion with Vincene A., John S. and Monica C. We originally went there to collect the bones of a shore bird called a whimbrel, locally named, kalalang (Numenius phaeopus) that I spotted a few weeks prior.

They were not flowering yet in February of this year. I took DJ hiking at Laderan Tanke Trail and found some in the limestone forest.
They were not flowering early March neither as you can see from these pictures from Old Man by the Sea trail.
Hiking buds: Janice, Joy-Joy, Tali, Laurie, and Noah.I hiked the Nanasu shoreline recently with Laurina to see San Juan Beach and what my friend Sean calls Barbara’s Beach (Hidden Beach) and saw some agatelang flowering, so it seems like the flowering season includes the months of May and June. I'll have to come back in a couple of weeks to see if they bear fruits!
A month later, the agatelang were fruiting! Check out this update and see their attractive red berries.

A’abang (Eugenia reainwardtiana)
These trees are more convincing to me to be the “agatelang” that the natives must have used for coconut husking stakes, rice pounding pestles, walking sticks and posts since I' find them to be taller and easier to visualize as a workable wood. They are medium sized trees (3-8 m). They are understory trees found in both interior and coastal limestone forests.

I had the pleasure of seeing nice examples at the Rota Bird Sanctuary recently during the Easter holiday weekend with my friend, Robyn. Can you see the similarities between the agetelang and a’abang?

Look how beautiful these a’abang trees are in this path. I’m sold! We need to push for more native tree plantings in Saipan that includes the a’abang. Aren't the fruits nice looking? They are supposed to mature from yellow to red like the agatelang's fruit. They look like small guavas to me but tasted a tad bland.
Try them for yourself but watch out for holes like this.

There could be an inch worm inside.

These are Strawberry guavas (Psidium cattleianum) from Honolulu. Don’t they resemble the fruits of the a’abang? These guavas have more pulp than the a'abang, have only one seed and are not as tasty as regular guavas.

A’abang like agatelang is an important wildlife food and it depends on fruit eating birds for seed dispersal. The seeds look like these:

During my recent hike to San Juan and Hidden Beach with my best friend, Laurina, we spotted the nest of a Ruffous fantail or locally, a na’abak (Rhipidura rufifrons saipanensis), evidence of the tree’s importance to the local birds.

The a’abang can grow into thick patches that can make navigating through them exceptionally difficult.

Surinam Cherry or pitanga (Eugenia uniflora)
Lastly, the Surinam Cherry is an introduced fruit tree to the CNMI and it is native to Brazil. The locals call them pitanga and they produce a sweet to spicy-tart red fruit that is longitudinally grooved much like a miniature Chinese lantern.

It was approximately a year ago that the Brownies invited me to talk to them about plants at the Saipan Botanical Garden. Judith accompanied along with the girls and their parents. Between the two of us, we managed to get this blurry picture of a pitanga.

My search for royalty has ended with very satisfying results. Thank you for letting me share and hope we can talk stories again soon.
Ti napu.

The Beachcomber

Want to read more? Look up Plants of Guam (1979, Moore & McMakin), Common Flora and Fauna of the Mariana Islands (2004, Vogt & Williams), Trees and Shrubs of the Northern Mariana Islands (1991, Raulerson and Rinehart), Tropical Trees of Hawai’i (2004, Wood), Trees of Hawai’i (1990, Kepler)HaH, and