If you’ve never tasted a mangosteen, then you’ve never tasted the most exquisite fruit of the tropics. And that's not just one opinion, it's the consensus of farmers, explorers, and royalty going back centuries.
European colonists stumbled upon the small purple tree fruit in Southeast Asia, where they found it to be a delicious mix of lychee, peach, strawberry, and pineapple flavors. The fruit spoiled so fast that someone started the rumor around 1890 that Queen Victoria would grant knighthood to anyone who brought her one. It was, whether true or not, enough to earn the mangosteen the widely-accepted title as "the queen of fruits."
The mangosteen has a rather illustrious history for a fruit that most Americans have never heard of. And why is that? You would think that the trappings of the 21st century—air travel, industrial fertilizer, climate control—would be the keys to taking this tropical fruit global. And yet, not only would you be wrong, but you'd be wading into the complex world of fruit logistics that says as much about the mangosteen as it does about us.
In 2006, the New York Times reported on the difficult process of growing mangosteens in the U.S., or anywhere outside of the warm and well-watered belt of the tropics where the fruit is native. The story’s writer, David Karp, talked to Ian Crown, who was at the time America’s leading mangosteen grower (because he was America’s only mangosteen grower). Back then, Crown’s company, Panoramic Fruit Company, was on the verge of harvesting his first 200 pounds of mangosteens in Puerto Rico to sell in U.S. markets, and from there, increasing “exponentially.” Here was a man, Karp wrote, finally realizing the long elusive dream of bringing fresh mangosteens to North America.
I had no idea how long that dream had been around. In fact, until about three years ago, I had never even heard of a mangosteen. (Like anyone, I initially assumed it was a cousin of the mango with a slightly different name for some Ellis Island-like reason no one could remember). It wasn’t until I started digging into the journals and diaries of David Fairchild, a 19th and 20th century food explorer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that I realized the mangosteen was nothing like a mango. It’s small, about the size of a fist, with a deep purple and leathery skin that hides about six to eight white and slimy wedges.
As part of his work for the USDA, Fairchild traveled to dozens of countries at a time when the U.S. had few native crops of its own in hopes of finding new ones to bring back. And amid the thousands of plants he officially introduced to the U.S.—avocados, nectarines, dates, pistachios, Egyptian cotton—he called the mangosteen his favorite.
“The meat has the consistency of a greengage plum but a flavor which is indescribably delicious,” Fairchild wrote after encountering the fruit on the Indian Ocean island of Java in 1896. “Of course, I immediately wanted to see this fruit on the American market, but there were many difficulties to be overcome.”
Those “difficulties” turned out to be a supreme understatement. And to understand why, you first have to understand why we eat the fruits that we do. Of the thousands, even millions, of edible plants on Earth, why do our supermarkets feature the same few, like apples, oranges, and bananas?
The short answer is that fruits, just like people, have a resumé. They must grow reliably. They must be quickly harvested. They must ripen fast and ship well, without bruising too much. They need to last a few days before going moldy on the kitchen counter or the back of the refrigerator. Every fruit and vegetable in the modern supermarket meets this criteria. Fruits like strawberries, lemons, and pineapples are the lucky one percent—the ones endowed with good pedigree and bred for their ability to survive the perils of the produce aisle.
The mangosteen, however, has almost none of these attributes. Its tree can take a decade to start fruiting, the fruit can’t withstand any cold temperatures, and even then, its yield is uncertain. Mangosteens are non-climateric ripeners, meaning that after they’re picked, they never ripen further. That leaves the easily bruised fruit beginning to degrade the moment it leaves the field.
And even if you can figure out how to balance the mangosteen farming/harvesting/shipping equation and can get the weather to cooperate, there are still big questions to resolve, like whether it carries invasive pests. It turns out, the answer is yes, particularly when imported from Southeast Asia. The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires all mangosteens imported to the U.S. and for sale usually in Asian supermarkets be irradiated to sterilize insects, but many people believe that process affects the taste. A mediocre taste that deters people raises the price to make growing it worthwhile, and if the price is too high, more people won’t buy it. And even if people do, there’s not a lot of actual fruit inside—just a few wedges (and some with pits).
Which brings us back to 2006 and that New York Times article envisioning the approaching mangosteen boom. Ian Crown, the farmer in the story, was expanding his crop, selling to chefs and restaurants, and beginning to make some money growing mangosteens.
I called Crown last week to see where things stood. “It’s gone as well as it could have except with one caveat—the weather,” Crown said. Heavy rains in Puerto Rico stalled his progress for a few years, but he has made headway, even if that progress is now threatened by Puerto Rico’s debt-heavy economy. His yield grew from 200 pounds in 2006 to an expected five to ten tons he expects to harvest this summer. Crown has begun to sell to Whole Foods, which displays the fruit in its Boston stores, and then if there’s overflow, in California and Texas. “Every time I get them into the store, there’s novelty value, so they sell out quickly.”
That market success is nothing to scoff at. But it’s well short of the kind of global phenomenon one could imagine if a diverse and deep-pocketed fruit company like Chiquita or Tropicana elevated the mangosteen to the tropical fruit big leagues along with bananas, guavas, and papayas.
Still, since 2006, Crown has expanded his offerings (and diversified his losses) by increasing to around 30 tropical fruits he now grows, including durian, rambutan, jackfruit, all of which do well, but toil in the minor leagues for similar reasons as the mangosteen. Crown, who is 64, seemed to see tropical fruit as a passion project with a few nickels to be made, rather than a lucrative path to millions. Before we got off the phone, he invited me down to Puerto Rico this summer to taste a mangosteen right off the tree—a rare offer in the world of fruit fan-dom. “Mine are the only non-irradiated mangosteens you’ll find in the Lower 48,” he said proudly. And then he paused. “I always think that’s a great pick-up line.”