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The Queen of Fruit

If you’ve never tasted a mangosteen, treat your mouth to this refreshing, tropical delight.

Mangosteens were so rare in Europe, Queen Victoria offered a cash reward to anyone who could bring her one. photo: Getty Images
“If I could sell leaves, I’d be rich,” says Richard Johnson, as he surveys his neatly planted orchard at Pepe‘ekeo on the Hamakua Coast of the Big Island. While his longan (a tropical fruit similar to a lychee), rambutan and starfruit trees seem to be setting and producing fruit abundantly, the oblong, leathery, dark green leaves of the mangosteen trees overwhelmingly outnumber the fruit. “You have to love mangosteen,” he says. “It doesn’t make economic sense to plant.”

People do love mangosteen once they’ve tasted this delicious, tropical fruit, which bears no resemblance at all to a mango—nor is it related. Originally from Malaysia and Indonesia, the mangosteen is known in Asia as the “queen of fruit.” Its pearly white, soft, segmented flesh, studded with an occasional seed, is encased in a dark purple, smooth, hard rind.

To eat a mangosteen, which is about equal in size to a small apple, break the shell apart, being careful that the purple juice doesn’t stain your clothes. Carefully separate the two halves of the shell to reveal the individual fruits, usually about five, which correspond to the number of petals on the bottom of the shell. The fruit has a delicate, waxy texture and sweet, slightly tart flavor that refreshes in an exquisite way. Think lychee, peach and vanilla rolled into one.

In addition to its luxurious taste, mangosteen has become one of the latest trendy botanical medicines. Xanthones, a kind of antioxidant, are abundant in mangosteens, especially in the rind. Historically, the rind has been used in many Asian countries for a variety of ailments. Today, mangosteen juice, often combined with other fruits and the bitter rind, is marketed for its possible cancer-fighting properties, but, without firm scientific evidence, the benefits are speculative at best.

Cure-all or not, it’s worth seeking out a mangosteen for its splendid flavor. The fruit is readily available in Southeast Asia, where it has been cultivated for decades. But in Hawai‘i, there are only a few Big Island farmers who have nurtured the trees for years. Johnson, a former engineer who bought an already-planted, tropical-fruit orchard, now has 39 mangosteen trees. After 16 years in the ground at his Onomea Orchards, the trees stand about 25 feet tall.

Mangosteen trees must start as seedlings and cannot be grafted, explains Johnson. It takes at least 10 years before a tree will bear fruit, compared to rambutans, which take only three years. “When I bought the orchard in 2000, it was the first year the mangosteen trees fruited,” he recalls. There have been increasing harvests each year, though some crops are lighter than others. Johnson’s orchard also yields rambutan, longan, starfruit, abiu (a yellow fruit native to the Amazon), sapodilla (a fruit native to Mexico and Central America) and heart of palm, which help keep his 42-acre farm viable.

Harvesting a mangosteen is no easier than coaxing it to grow. “We have to pick one fruit at a time,” Johnson explains. He climbs each tree like a monkey to pick the fruit that lies hidden beneath the canopy of leaves. In 2005, Johnson harvested 4,500 pounds of mangosteens, all of which stayed in Hawai‘i. They can’t be exported, because they can harbor fruit flies.

When his crop is not already spoken for, Johnson will ship five-pound boxes of the fruit within the state; e-mail him at onomeaorchards@yahoo.com. The fruit should also be available this month, through the end of the year, at farmers’ markets, Chinatown stores and possibly in some supermarkets.

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,September

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