The Mangoes at the Moana festival Saturday reminded me of a cherished tradition that is fast disappearing on Oahu: backyard mango trees.
“This is really sad. Having a mango tree creates a sense of community,” said Mark Suiso, who has 70 mango trees on his one-acre back yard in Makaha. “When you share its fruit, you make friends. The tree connects you to the land.”
Suiso, the owner of Makaha Mangoes, proselytizes the glory of the mango in his spare time.
“The current generation does not value fruit trees like the older generation. That hurts all of us,” he said.
Time was that in neighborhoods like Kaimuki, Kapahulu and Waianae, homeowners decided where they would plant their fruit trees before they pinpointed where to put the foundations of their houses.
In that bygone time, driving through a neighborhood in the heat of the summer, you would see lush canopies of green mango trees burdened with orange-pink fruit waiting to be plucked.
One of my best summers was when my neighbor’s Haden mango tree dropped more than 200 mangoes into my garden. When the mangoes started falling, I tried to give them back to my neighbor but he told me to keep all of them. His wife was allergic to mangoes.
All summer long we ate mango cream pie, mango bread, mango and watermelon salad — and we served mango salsa spread over wild Alaska salmon at a dinner party to honor my generous neighbor. We drank mango martinis and cooled off with mango tonics.
The windfall allowed me to be generous myself, filling brown paper bags full of mangoes to give to friends. When I posted pictures of mangoes on Facebook, my Facebook friends traded avocados and bottles of wine with me for mangoes. They gave me their surplus bananas and limes.
My neighbor has since moved to Maui and the man who bought his house cut the mango tree’s limbs back to stubs.
To be clear, there are still mango trees scattered here and there on Oahu, but their numbers are fast diminishing.
Many factors are causing their demise. One is that community associations in suburban housing developments — mostly in west Oahu — forbid mango trees
Ewa by Gentry, the Villages of Kapolei and most other west side community associations have lists of trees residents are allowed to plant. Mango trees are not on the lists. Sabine Mendonca of Ewa by Gentry said a key concern with all big trees, including mangoes, is that their roots will spread to cause damage to neighbors’ properties.
Mango trees also are disappearing in older east Oahu neighborhoods such as Kaimuki and Palolo, to make room for the looming new residences my architect-neighbor John Black calls “monster houses.” The typical monster house is all structure and no yard.
Another factor is people who inherit family properties and chop down their parents’ mango trees, not wanting to deal with the mess of the leaves and the cost of pruning.
“When people stayed home more, they enjoyed their yards, but now peoples’ lives are busier,” said arborist Steve Nimz. “When they come home from work late in the evening, they don’t have time to water their gardens. There is less appreciation for backyard plants and trees.
Still another factor is that some gardens are very small now. “Like postage stamps,” Nimz said.
Yet despite all these negatives, I spoke with a couple at the mango festival at the Moana who said the key reason they bought their Waialae Nui house was the old Haden mango tree in the back yard.
“It was a huge selling point. We love mangoes,” said Curt Cavanaugh. “With a mango tree full of fruit, we find we have more friends than ever before.”
Arborist Heidi Bornhorst said it is time to reverse the trend of chopping down valuable backyard fruit trees.
“Let’s grow more fruit. Let’s have a fruit tree in every backyard. Let’s share the fruit and the baked goods from the fruit and the recipes. Let’s create ohana,” she said.
And let’s preserve the trees that are still standing. When a tree grows out of proportion to its yard, said Nimz, that doesn’t have to mean the tree must be taken down.
He said the solution can be to prune back the tree carefully and keep it pruned each year, not letting it exceed 20 feet in height.
Another solution is to replace a big mango tree outgrowing its yard with one of the new dwarf mango varieties.
“They are amazing “ said Roxanne Yadao. She is growing two dwarf mango trees in pots in the small back yard of the house she rents in Kaimuki.
Dwarf mango trees, sometimes called “condo mangoes,” can be planted in tiny yards or in containers on condo balconies. They grow only 4 to 10 feet tall, yet they bear fruit the same size as those from regular mango trees.
“My dwarf Rapoza mango yields about three dozen mangoes a year and the mangoes are just gigantic, the size of papayas. It’s really amazing, ” said Yadao.
She had enough fruit left over one year from a dwarf tree to create a chocolate-chili mango bread that won first place in the Moana mango-cooking contest.
The Villages at Kapolei now has the dwarf mango tree on its list as a tree for possible consideration for property owners in its developments.
So I end with praise for mango trees, dwarf and big. And my memories of when 200 mangoes fell in my backyard, to give me a sense of closeness to the earth and rekindling the feeling of community with people with whom I shared that summer’s bounty.