|Mangosteen at the Ooty Market|
Our Nilgiris project is essentially an agri-community which will be producing food-crops on site, apart from other livelihood initiatives. While we are trying to identify the land and discover what all we can grow we take excursions into the local markets in the Nilgiris to get ideas. On a recent trip to Ooty we chanced upon the vegetable market which is a riot of colours at this time of the year. Yellow zucchini, red radish, purple cabbage, orange carrot, blue beans and the usual greens were there in profusion. The fruits were not far behind – reddish-orange rambutan, brown sapota, and the royal mangosteen was present in a dark purple blush.
I must admit that I had never tasted the mangosteen .Though I had heard that it was an exotic fruit; I had neither seen a picture nor was prepared for its purple exterior. The vendors who called it ‘mangustan’ did not make the connection easy but finally I had a mangosteen in my hands. Incidentally, mangustan is not incorrect at all; the Spanish people call it ‘mangostan’. Shared one with friends right then and there, and all three of us were blown away by the tangy sweet taste. I immediately decided to explore if it was possible to grow this fruit in our backyard, i.e. The Nilgiris Project.
First, a little bit of history and folklore. It seems that the mangosteen (Garcinia mangostana) originated in the Sunda Islands and the Moluccas. It is very popular in Burma, Thailand, Malaya, Philippines, and other parts of Asia as it thrives on tropical weather. There is a fantastic website (www.mangosteen.com) which charmingly lists both the documented history and the folklore of the mangosteen. The Brits, as usual, claim that they were the ones to popularize the fruit in the west. It seems that the fruit was first grown in a heated greenhouse in England by John Ivison, the gardener of the Duke of Northumberland, in 1855. David Fairchild, plant collector and botanist extraordinaire, coined the expression “Mangosteen, the queen of tropical fruit’; which, of course, has been subsequently used to describe fruits such as the mango, breadfruit, pineapple, peach and many others, by quietly dropping the ‘tropical’ from the epithet. There are tales of how Queen Victoria offered to pay 100 pounds to anyone who could provide her with access to a fresh mangosteen...but such tales have no corroboration whatsoever!
There are many who have tried to describe the exquisite taste. I will use the words of two intrepid explorers who had the privilege of tasting the fruit and have left behind memorable quotes."...an abundant white, juicy pulp, soft, sweet, slightly acidulated, and with a delicate, delicious flavour, which recalls that of a fine peach, muscatel grapes, and something peculiar and indescribable which no other fruit has." [Odoardo Beccari]
"The mangosteen has only one fault; it is impossible to eat enough of it, but, strictly speaking, perhaps that is a defect in the eater rather than in the fruit." [Eric Mjöberg]
But that is not all. It seems the fruit has a ton of health benefits. The pericarp (rind) when dried and ground is an antidote for dysentery, fever and a variety of other illnesses. Modern medicinal research indicates that the naturally occurring xanthomes (polyphenolic compounds) in the fruit have antioxidant properties which are efficacious for treating hypertension, cardio-vascular diseases and thrombosis. The list goes on; it is anti almost any disease of your choice! Wow, this fruit seems to have it all.
Learning about the health benefits only added to the resolve of growing it in our own project. But the last part of my investigation literally proved that I was barking up the wrong slope! The trees take at least seven years to bear fruit [and that is not the problem]; it is grown in India but is restricted to a few areas in the lower slopes of the Nilgiris (300 m to 1000 m) and in the Malabar and Tirunelvelli districts. Hmm....our project is likely to be located at around MSL 2000 m! Another case of ‘so near and yet so far.’ Well, I’ll just drive downhill when I feel that urge to sink my teeth into a luscious mangosteen pod.