Backyard Mangoes


It's high summer and across town the old backyard mango trees are heavy with fruit. In a few weeks our neighbour's produce will swamp the back yard, spreading clouds of fruit flies and that sweet, boozy smell of decay. The fruits are regarded as a nuisance and left to rot, which is often the case for "stringy" mangoes. This seems a shame, and doesn't make sense as they must have been planted to be eaten at some point in the past. Mature fruit trees are a part of our suburban heritage so I thought I'd look into the history of this Queensland backyard favorite.

Mangoes have been cultivated in Asia for thousands years and over time the "king of fruit" spread south via trade routes as far as Indonesia. But the fruit made its first appearance in Australia with the white colonial settlers, or specifically with a Captain Curry of the British Royal Navy who brought the first plants to the Sydney Botanic Gardens in 1823. Captain Curry's donation was followed by other imports but although the trees were reported to thrive and flower the fruit failed to ripen in the southern climate*1.

The introduction of the fruit to Queensland has been attributed to, well, lots of different people, but let's begin with the very first settlement - the Moreton Bay Penal Colony founded in 1824. The vessel Amity arrived in  in September 1824, carrying 29 prisoners, the Commandant and his family and a dozen or so military personnel and their families. Also aboard the ship was a selection of seeds, fruit trees and plants under the care of a convict gardener from the colonial botanical gardens in Sydney*2. The choice of settlement was Redcliffe, in the vicinity of Humpybong Creek, and the colonists set about constructing shelters and preparing the grounds for gardens. John Cunningham recorded:

"An extensive selection of valuable exotics formed by Mr Fraser the Colonial 
Botanical Gardener, had been also forwarded by the brig, for the future use of the 
settlement. It consisted of young plants of  tropical fruits, viz pineapples, mangoes, 
some of the annotae, gromachamo, oranges, lemons, loquats, bananas, plantains, 
guavas etc. These had been unpacked and had been committed to the soil which had 
been previously prepared for their reception, with every hope that under a little 
care, these plants would soon become naturalized to a part of the coast, whose mean 
temperature of climate appears fully adapted to secure their existence and promote 
their growth"*2.

But Redcliffe proved a problematic site and the settlement was soon moved to a more sheltered position along North Quay in Brisbane. We can presume that the plants were also relocated, as the Colonial Botanist Charles Fraser noted two mangoes growing in the botanical gardens when he visited Brisbane a few years later*2. Whether the trees ever reached maturity and produced fruit is not known.

The Wardian Case: first-class 
accommodation for young seedlings 
travelling to Queensland
Some sources mention John Bidwill as the first Queensland grower. John was appointed the Commissioner or Lands in Wide Bay in the late 1840's and  had previously been in charge of the Sydney gardens. He was a keen horticulturalist and established an orchard in what is now a suburb of Maryborough, on a plot of land at the junction of Tinana Creek and the Maryborough River, which included mango trees*1. A few years later he became lost in the bush and fatally injured while surveying a road to Moreton Bay, and though his garden was subsequently relocated to Sydney at least some of the mangoes stayed in Queensland - including the four trees planted around his grave at Tinana Creek. At least one of those trees was reported to be still alive in the 1940s*4. I've scoured my sources for a portrait of J. C. Bidwell so that I could pay proper tribute to the man, to no avail, but I did find this mango lover's homage in a 1907 text*5:

"Many centuries passed, and Cook discovered Australia; and when the
pioneers pushed their way into Queensland, it was found that without the
mango the country could never be worth living in, and ... one J. C. Bidwill ... 
sent an unheroic request or a formal order to India, and received a few plants 
(in a wardian case probably), and that is how one of the best gifts of profuse 
Providence to grateful Queenslanders came to be introduced. Mr. Bidwill was 
neither threatened with the stake, nor was any description of miracle practiced 
upon him; neither is his name venerated, nor even generally remembered. 
Are we very sacrilegious, or our mouths too full of the mango and its praises
 to remember the name of the good and wise man who first made it available?"

"Wardian Cases", or sealed glass containers, were used to transport seedlings on long sea voyages from the mid-19th century and they revolutionized the import of new plant species to our shores.

In the 1850's Queensland transformed from a penal settlement to a booming colony. The subtropical climate opened prospects for the cultivation of a whole new range of crops and in response the Governor G. F. Bowen founded the Queensland Acclimatization Society in 1862, to import, test and introduce exotic plants for economic and ornamental purposes. The society experimented with a wide range of crops at a reserve located at the current Exhibition Grounds and Bowen Park in Brisbane*6. Their efforts were perhaps a bit late and certainly subject to much public scrutiny, as suggested by the below letter to the editor of the Brisbane Courier urging Queensland to "awake and see your error"*7.


The society rose to the challenge and in early 1864 it nominated the Mango as a priority import*8. The program would involve a range of varieties and the search for cultivars began with a letter to Governor Bowen, suggesting that he request specimens from his friend Sir William Dennison, the governor of Madras*9. The plants arrived in June that year, packed in wardian cases, and were planted in hot beds in the gardens*10. Later that year another request was sent to the colonial administrator of Bombay to provide more varieties *11. It also appears that R. B Sheridan, an official of Maryborough, donated mango seeds in early 1865*12, probably the progeny of John Bidwell's introduction a few decades earlier. A donation from the governor of Mauritius arrived in late 1865*13. By 1867 a total of six varieties were reported to grow in the gardens*14 and that same year a selection of plants were dispatched to the Northern towns of Bowen and MacKay for local trials*15.

The Acclimatization Society's 
grounds in the 1880's
In December 1868 the first mangos were fruiting in Bowen park. It was the Mauritian trees that achieved this milestone, but the other varieties planted throughout the park were also reported to be "healthy and vigorous"*10). The introduction of the fruit was a success and Queensland's status as the home of the Australian mango was secured.

Throughout the mid 1860's the local papers had frequent advertisements for imported "Indian condiments" including mango chutneys, so there's no doubt that there was a local market for the produce. Perhaps this explains the intense public interest in the Acclimatization Society's efforts. What may seem like trivial matters today were of critical importance to the burgeoning colony and its future balance of trade.

In summary we can conclude that the official birthplace of the Queensland Mango was either the area along Humpybong Creek at Redcliffe, a plot of land at the junction of Tinana Creek and Maryborough river or the small but pretty Bowen Park that now cowers under the shadow of the Royal Women's Hospital. Official efforts aside, we know that mango trees had been imported privately to Brisbane and other Queensland outposts throughout the 1840s and 50s *1*17.

What's particularly striking about the early Mango cultivation is the wide range of varieties that were available to gardeners and commercial growers. An 1885 inventory of Bowen Park and Botanical Gardens lists seven varieties, including the wonderfully named "Malda", "Bindabonnee" and "Chuckchapea"*18.

1885 inventory of Mango varieties in Bowen Park

The Australian Fruit Culturist of 1893 mentions the "Bengale", "Dohdohl", "Gratissima", "Gumphor", "Sangier" and "Strawberry" varieties; all of which with different shape and color, flesh and uses*19. Pugh's Almanac recommended the "Degieng" and "Goa" for Queensland gardeners*20. In 1886 Hocking's Nursery in Brisbane offered half a dozen varieties for sale, including the "Calcutta", "Gooseberry", "Pineapple", "Dauphine", and "Rose". The nursery stocked hundreds of mango  plants and Mr Hocking reported a greater demand for them than he could supply*21.

But - I haven't come across a single record of import, or sale, of a "Common Mango" cultivar. One source identifies"Strawberry" as a substitute name for the "Kensington" or "Bowen" mango*22, and I'd bet a buck that this early version of the "Kensington" is what is now referred to as the "Common". The "Strawberry" was very popular garden variety and recommended by many texts a century ago.

As for most crops one of the drawbacks of industrialized production was a loss of variety. Today, the majority of mangoes sold are either Kensington Pride (a development of the Bowen Mango, 70% of sales), Calypso (8%) and R2E2 (who on earth came up with this name? 6% of sales), with Honey Gold and a smattering of seasonal varieties making up the remaining 6% of the Australian market*23. On the upside, they are generally of fabulous quality, texture, aroma and taste; and travel well to Australian and overseas consumers. 

Mango trees can grow up to a couple of hundred years old and I suspect that many of the "Common" trees in our Brisbane neighborhoods are in fact of the old varieties, particularly in the colonial-era gardens. But mangoes need TLC just like any other crop, to bring out their full color, plumpness and fragrance. With some gentle pruning, mulch, fertilizer and water who knows what that "stringy" old mango in granny's back yard could produce. Wouldn't you love to sink your teeth into a genuine "Gratissima", "Biondabonnee" or "Alphonso"? I sure would.

Indian "Alphonso"" mangoes


Key Sources:
1 - Introduction of the Mango to Australia, G. I Johnson, Proceedings of the Royal Society of QLD, 1999

2 - Brisbane Town in Convict Days, 1824-1842, JG Steele, 1975
3 - Australian Dictionary of Biography, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/, accessed 29 January 2013
4 - Early days of Maryborough, F. McKinnon, Historical Society of Queensland, 1947
5 - Within the Barrier, A Tourist's Guide to North Queensland, E. J. Banfield, 1907
6 - Queensland Historical Atlas, http://www.qhatlas.com.au/content/, accessed 29 Jan 2013
7 - The Brisbane Courier, 16 April 1864
8 - The Brisbane Courier, 16 April  1864
9 - The Brisbane Courier, 15 April 1864
10 - The Brisbane Courier, 29 June 1864
11 - The Brisbane Courier, 27 July 1864
12 - The Brisbane Courier, 28 March 1865
13 - The Brisbane Courier 27 Sept 1865
14 - The Brisbane Courier 18 May 1867
15 - The Courier Mail 14 Aug 1867
16 - The Courier Mail, 1 December 1868
17 -  Multiple references can be found for mango treess  in Queensland before the  1860's, for example sales by Hocking's Nursery advertised in the 1859 Pugh Almanac and mentions in the book "Queensland the Field for British Labour and Enterprise" 1862, 
18 - Catalogue of Plants in Brisbane Botanic Garden and Bowen Parks, F. M. Bailey, 1885
19 - The Australian Fruit Culturist, D. A. Crichton, 1893
20 - Pugh's Almanac, 1882
21 - The Queenslander, 27 February 1886
22 - Fruits of Warm Climates, J. Morton, 1987
23 - Australia Mangoes http://www.mangoes.net.au/homegrown/varieties.aspx

3 comments:

  1. Interesting article!Mr.Hocking's introductions of Mango trees from Calcutta in the 1850's, The Calcutta Strawberry Mango would have been the origin of the first Strawberry Mango in Queensland. the common mango owes its origin from wild types introduced from India and Dutch East Indies.

    ReplyDelete
  2. In Cuba, these stringy mangoes are put to good use. They are peeled and boiled with sugar. Then they are removed, and the residue makes a great ice block if frozen or can be eaten warm. Yum!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Adam - that sounds great, certainly worth a try. Let that sugary mash ferment, and you have mango mead!

    ReplyDelete