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Mango Mania at Los Fresnos

By Mary Karish
Contributing Writer

Ed Pechacek, a mango lover, did not know a chance encounter would change his life. It started with a longan tree (Dimocarpus longan). Pechacek had received a call from a woman who wanted to see the longan tree he grew on his farm. Longan, a Chinese word for “dragon eye,” is a tropical fruit that, when it is shelled, resembles an eyeball.

Upon seeing the tree, the visitor broke down in tears. The tree reminded her of her childhood, when she had spent many hours at her grandmother’s garden. Her grandmother grew longan trees in Vietnam, and since her immigration to the United States, the visitor had not seen it.

At the time, Pechacek held a rotational job in the oil industry in Alaska. During his time off, he tended his 10-acre property in Los Fresnos, a city located north of Brownsville. He cut his grass, weeded and maintained a small collection of fruit trees. After his encounter, he realized that fruit trees, unlike vegetables, have the ability to create an emotional attachment. His wife, Kathy Pechacek, recalls, “Fruit trees bear witness to family history and intertwine themselves with our memories.”

Ed, a fruit lover with no formal horticultural training, decided to devote all his time to fruit-hunting trips. He brought back seeds and plants to cultivate from various parts of the world. His knowledge evolved from trials, errors and many failures. Along his fruit-hunting expeditions, he met Kathy, his spouse, and started “River’s End Nursery.” Kathy jokes, “Ed married me for the free labor.” With help from a part time employee, the Pechaceks spend all of their time keeping up with the demands of running a nursery.

The nursery name is based on a place they once saw where an old riverbed of the Rio Grande empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Kathy said, “As a bit of a stretch, the nursery is located at the end of the river.”

Ed’s interest in cultivating rare tropical fruit trees was born out of concern for preserving plant diversity. The nursery is a hodgepodge of fruit trees that encompasses more than 150 varieties of avocadoes, bamboos, spice trees, palms, citrus, cauliflory, mangoes and stone fruit. Mangoes, however, dominate a major part of the nursery, with more than 25 varieties.

Mangoes have been growing in India and Southeast Asia for thousands of years. They are long lived, with some varieties making it to the ripe old age of 100, and can reach 60 feet tall. In India, a mango tree is considered sacred because (it is said) Buddha meditated under it.

The Indian mango fruit is generally green with a red blush at the branch junction. It usually turns yellow with some spots as it matures. It is a monoembryonic, meaning each time you plant a seed, you get a different mango seedling, hence a new variety. South Asian mango has an elongated S-shape. It turns bright yellow when it is ripe. It is a polyembryonic, so when started from seed, the seedling will almost be true to type.

In order to ensure same variety production, Indian mangoes are propagated by grafting. The most common cultivar is ‘Alphonso,’ considered by fruit connoisseurs as “The King of Mangoes.” British actor Terence Stamp, who appeared in the Star Wars movie, was once asked what was his favorite food? Without missing a beat, he replied, “Alphonso mango.” He explained, “Because unless you’ve had an Alfonso mango you’ve never had a mango.”

If the grower is not picky on variety, hybridization provides another alternative to developing new assortments. It involves selecting two desired mango-tree varieties planted within close proximity of one another. Considered a waiting game of chance, each mango seedling will produce a unique variety through crosspollination. It is possible to end up with 20 varieties on a single tree!

Mangoes’ debut in the United States was in Florida in the mid-1800s. Dr. David Fairchild, founder of Foreign Seed and Plant Section at the United States Department of Agriculture, introduced mango cultivation. The goal was to grow mangoes for export. In 1938, after his retirement, Dr. Fairchild, along with a group of passionate plant collectors, started the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden on 83 acres of land in Coral Gables, Florida. It became a haven for many rare and interesting varieties of plants.

After attending the International Mango Festival at the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden, the Pechaceks were inspired to start their own festival in the Rio Grande Valley. They wanted to introduce people to mango varieties and educate the public on the care and growing of mango trees.

They organized their first mango festival in 2008 with only 100 people attending. Last year, more than 900 people came to the festival. The Pechaceks relied on friends, family members, high-school students, scouts and long-lost relatives to run the festival.

The festival usually starts with cultivar tastings and voting for the best three mango favorites. Each attendee is given a list of nominated varieties to evaluate. Volunteers manning the tasting stations provide sliced mangoes as well as a brief description of the size of the tree, disease resistance, type of fruit and maintenance.

After counting the ballots for the 2016 best-tasting-mango variety, the winner was ‘Lemon Zest.’ It is best known for its beautiful skin color of pale yellow to orange that comes with a hint of citrus flavor and it is fiberless. Second place was ‘Irwin,’ a consistent and heavy producer of fiberless soft fruit. Tying third spot was ‘Bailey’s Marvel,’ a cold-tolerant fruit; and ‘Fairchild,’ a small tree that produces well under high humidity and rainy conditions.

The festival offers workshops that address disease and pest management, growing and harvesting mangos. Local chefs hold food demonstrations and provide various recipes that incorporate mangoes. The Mango Market allows you to pick delicious ready-to-eat mango fruits from all over the world to enjoy in the comfort of your home. Mangoland is stocked with jellies, smoothies, relishes and ice pops.

The best part of the festival is purchasing your favorite mango tree. Trees sold at the festival are adapted to the Rio Grande Region. Each tree comes with planting and care instructions. However, connection with sold trees does not end at the nursery. Kathy declared, “We retain visitation rights of our trees.”

Ed said, “The most important element to successfully growing mango trees is the 20-inch-and-pinch system.” At the 2016 workshop, he advised, “With first-year grafted mangoes, after a flush of growth reaches 20 inches in length, it is time to prune the tree. Multiple shoots will grow from below the cut. Once they grow 20 inches, it is time to prune them again.”

Fruiting will generally start in the third year. Ed said, “Continue to use the 20-inch-and-pinch system after each fruit harvest. Pruning will help maintain a manageable size by diverting the energy from branch growth into fruit formation.”

Young trees require fertilization three times a year: March, June and September. According to University of Hawaii horticulturists, mango trees require a slow-release fertilizer made of 10 percent nitrogen, 20 percent phosphorous and 20 percent potassium. Mature trees are fertilized before spring growth appears and right after harvesting.

Mangoes do not require a lot of water. However, they do not tolerate the cold. Young trees could be severely damaged if temperatures dip below 30 degrees Fahrenheit. It is imperative to provide protection through the use of frost blankets or building a soil bank around the trunk. Established trees can survive temperatures down to 25 degrees, but only for a few hours.

The mango season is usually May through August, depending on the variety. Ripe mangoes will sometimes have a fragrant smell at the end of their stem. To judge ripeness, squeeze the mango gently. It will give slightly when ready to be eaten. Possums consider mangoes a delicacy, and they tend to beat growers to the harvest. At the festival, Ed joked, “Possums do not attend workshops to learn when mangoes are ripe.”

To avoid this problem, he advised, “Use organza or gift bags to guard ripe mangoes from critters.”

The best way to eat a mango is by slicing each side just past the seed. Score the flesh without breaking the skin, and scoop it with a spoon. Mangoes are considered “superfoods.” One serving cup provides 100 percent daily need of vitamin C, 35 percent vitamin A, and 12 percent fiber, with less than 100 calories.

Mangoes are not just summer fruits. They make excellent pies, ice cream, jams and smoothies. Mangoes are also used in cooking many savory dishes. Mango recipes can be found at www.mango.org.

This year’s mango festival is on July 15. At the festival, new varieties of mangoes will be introduced for tasting, voting and purchasing. However, throughout the year, River’s End Nursery sells its produce of tropical fruits at the farmers’ markets in South Padre Island, Brownsville and McAllen.

Kathy recently posted on Facebook this question, “What does your mango garden say about you?” She responded, “There is a mango for every taste — sweet or savory, mild or spicy, as a fruit or vegetable and in every imaginable color and texture. The best part — there is no wrong mango.”

The Mango Festival at the River’s End Nursery provides cultivars of the “King of Fruits” you won’t find in the local grocery produce section. Starting from the superior dessert mangoes of India to the latest varieties of Florida, the Tasting & Flavor Evaluation Table gives fruit lovers a rare opportunity to experience a wealth of mango fruit flavors. The workshops provide in-depth knowledge on growing and maintaining mango trees. The cooking demonstrations illustrate many and new exciting recipes, and the nursery is guaranteed to carry your favorite mango tree variety to plant in your garden. Make sure you add the Mango Festival to your calendar.

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