Earlier this month, I stayed at a resort on the west coast of Phuket island, Thailand, as part of a three-day English camp with about 50 students. I think the owners of this particular hotel may have been from Singapore due to the sheer number of “No _____ Allowed” signs with accompanying fines, something not often seen in Thailand. I was particularly puzzled by a sign in the elevator which banned durian (understandable due to the pungent aroma) along with mangosteen. Mangosteen? What’s wrong with this fruit? One of our Thai staff explained that is was probably because they are “sticky” while another said that they are “very messy” to peel and eat. My (British) boss said it was because of the prejudice against Chinese that has become prevalent here. Whatever the reason, it reminded me that I had a stamp picturing mangosteen. It is one of my favorite “new” fruits that I discovered upon moving to Southeast Asia 14 years ago; another — rambutan — has previously been featured on A Stamp A Day and, no, I haven’t yet tried durian (which is on another stamp in this same 1986 Malaysian series) but I certainly have smelled it!
The purple mangosteen (Garcinia mangostana), known simply as mangosteen, is a tropical evergreen tree believed to have originated in the Sunda Islands of the Malay archipelago and the Moluccas of Indonesia. It grows mainly in Southeast Asia, southwest India and other tropical areas such as Puerto Rico and Florida, where the tree has been introduced. The tree grows from 6 to 25 meters (19.7 to 82.0 feet) tall. The fruit of the mangosteen is sweet and tangy, juicy, somewhat fibrous, with fluid-filled vesicles (like the flesh of citrus fruits), with an inedible, deep reddish-purple colored rind (exocarp) when ripe. In each fruit, the fragrant edible flesh that surrounds each seed is botanically endocarp, i.e., the inner layer of the ovary. Seeds are almond-shaped and sized.
The purple mangosteen belongs to the same genus as the other, less widely known, mangosteens, such as the button mangosteen (G. prainiana) or the charichuelo (G. madruno).
Mangosteen is a native plant to Southeast Asia. Highly valued for its juicy, delicate texture and slightly sweet and sour flavor, the mangosteen has been cultivated in Malaysia, Borneo, Sumatra, Mainland Southeast Asia, and the Philippines since ancient times. The 15th-century Chinese record Yingya Shenglan described mangosteen as mang-chi-shih (derived from Malay Language manggis), a native plant of Southeast Asia of white flesh with delectable sweet and sour taste.
A description of mangosteen was included in the Species Plantarum by Linnaeus in 1753. The mangosteen was introduced into English greenhouses in 1855. Subsequently its culture was introduced into the Western Hemisphere, where it became established in West Indies islands, especially Jamaica. It was later established on the Americas mainland in Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, and Ecuador. The mangosteen tree generally does not grow well outside the tropics.
There is a legend about Queen Victoria offering a reward of 100 pounds sterling to anyone who could deliver to her the fresh fruit. Although this legend can be traced to a 1930 publication by the fruit explorer, David Fairchild, it is not substantiated by any known historical document, yet is probably responsible for the uncommon designation of mangosteen as the “Queen of Fruit”.
The journalist and gourmet R. W. Apple, Jr. once said of the fruit, “No other fruit, for me, is so thrillingly, intoxicatingly luscious…I’d rather eat one than a hot fudge sundae, which for a big Ohio boy is saying a lot.” Since 2006, private small-volume orders for fruits grown in Puerto Rico were sold to American specialty food stores and gourmet restaurants who serve the flesh segments as a delicacy dessert.
Mangosteen is usually propagated by seedlings. Vegetative propagation is difficult and seedlings are more robust and reach fruiting earlier than vegetative propagated plants.
Mangosteen produces a recalcitrant seed which is not a true seed strictly defined, but rather described as a nucellar asexual embryo. As seed formation involves no sexual fertilization, the seedling is genetically identical to the mother plant. If allowed to dry, a seed dies quickly, but if soaked, seed germination takes between 14 and 21 days when the plant can be kept in a nursery for about 2 years growing in a small pot.
When the trees are approximately 25–30 cm (10–12 inches), they are transplanted to the field at a spacing of 20–40 meters (66–131 feet). After planting, the field is mulched in order to control weeds. Transplanting takes place in the rainy season because young trees are likely to be damaged by drought. Because young trees need shade, intercropping with banana, plantain, rambutan, durian or coconut leaves is effective. Coconut palms are mainly used in areas with a long dry season, as palms also provide shade for mature mangosteen trees. Another advantage of intercropping in mangosteen cultivation is the suppression of weeds.
The growth of the trees is retarded if the temperature is below 20 °C (68 °F). The ideal temperature range for growing and producing fruits is 25–35 °C (77–95 °F) with a relative humidity over 80%. The maximal temperature is 38–40 °C (100–104 °F), with both leaves and fruit being susceptible to scorching and sunburn, while the minimum temperature is 3–5 °C (37–41 °F). Young seedlings prefer a high level of shade and mature trees are shade-tolerant.
Major mangosteen production occurs in Southeast Asia, mainly in Thailand as the country with the most acreage planted, estimated at 4,000 hectares in 1965 and 11,000 ha in 2000, giving a total yield of 46,000 tons. Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are other major Asian producers. Mangosteen production in Puerto Rico is succeeding, but despite decades of attempts, no major production occurs elsewhere in the Caribbean Islands, South America, Florida, California, Hawaii or any continent except Asia.
Mangosteen trees have a weak root system and prefer deep, well drained soils with high moisture content, often growing on riverbanks. The mangosteen is not adapted to limestone soils, sandy, alluvial soils or sandy soils with low organic matter content. Mangosteen trees need a well distributed rainfall over the year (<40 mm/month) and a 3–5 week dry season. They are sensitive to water availability and application of fertilizer input which is increased with the age of trees, regardless of region. Maturation of mangosteen fruits takes 5–6 months, with harvest occurring when the pericarps are purple.
Mangosteen trees may reach fruit-bearing in as little as 5–6 years, but more typically require 8–10 years. The yield of the mangosteen is variable, depending on climate and age of the tree. If the young tree is bearing for the first time, 200–300 fruits may be produced, whereas at maturity, 500 fruits per season are average. At age 30 to 45 years in full maturity, each tree may yield as many as 3,000 fruits, with trees as old as 100 years still producing.
A tropical tree, the mangosteen must be grown in consistently warm conditions, as exposure to temperatures below 0 °C (32 °F) for prolonged periods will usually kill a mature plant. They are known to recover from brief cold spells rather well, often with damage only to young growth. Experienced horticulturists have grown this species outdoors, and brought them to fruit in extreme south Florida.
The juvenile mangosteen fruit, which does not require fertilization to form, first appears as pale green or almost white in the shade of the canopy. As the fruit enlarges over the next two to three months, the exocarp color deepens to darker green. During this period, the fruit increases in size until its exocarp is 6–8 centimeters (2.4–3.1 inches) in outside diameter, remaining hard until a final, abrupt ripening stage.
The subsurface chemistry of the mangosteen exocarp comprises an array of polyphenols, including xanthones and tannins that assure astringency which discourages infestation by insects, fungi, plant viruses, bacteria and animal predation while the fruit is immature. Color changes and softening of the exocarp are natural processes of ripening that indicates the fruit can be eaten and the seeds have finished developing.
Once the developing mangosteen fruit has stopped expanding, chlorophyll synthesis slows as the next color phase begins. Initially streaked with red, the exocarp pigmentation transitions from green to red to dark purple, indicating a final ripening stage. This entire process takes place over a period of ten days as the edible quality of the fruit peaks.
Over the days following removal from the tree, the exocarp hardens to an extent depending upon post-harvest handling and ambient storage conditions, especially relative humidity levels. If the ambient humidity is high, exocarp hardening may take a week or longer when the flesh quality is peaking and excellent for consumption. However, after several additional days of storage, especially if unrefrigerated, the flesh inside the fruit might spoil without any obvious external indications. Using the hardness of the rind as an indicator of freshness for the first two weeks following harvest is therefore unreliable because the rind does not accurately reveal the interior condition of the flesh. If the exocarp is soft and yielding as it is when ripe and fresh from the tree, the fruit is usually good.
The edible endocarp of the mangosteen has the same shape and size as a tangerine 4–6 centimeters (1.6–2.4 inches) in diameter, but is white. The number of fruit segments corresponds exactly with the number of stigma lobes on the exterior apex; accordingly, a higher number of fleshy segments also corresponds with the fewest seeds. The circle of wedge-shaped segments contains 4–8, rarely 9 segments, the larger ones harboring the apomictic seeds that are unpalatable unless roasted. As a non-climacteric fruit, a picked mangosteen does not ripen further, so must be consumed shortly after harvest.
Often described as a subtle delicacy, the flesh bears an exceptionally mild aroma, quantitatively having about 1/400th of the chemical constituents of fragrant fruits, explaining its relative mildness. The main volatile components having caramel, grass and butter notes as part of the mangosteen fragrance are hexyl acetate, hexenol and α-copaene.
The endocarp is the white part of the fruit containing a mild flavor that makes the fruit popular for eating. When analyzed specifically for its content of essential nutrients, however, mangosteen nutrition is modest, as all nutrients analyzed are a low percentage of the Dietary Reference Intake.
Due to restrictions on imports, mangosteen is not readily available in certain countries. Although available in Australia, for example, they are still rare in the produce sections of grocery stores in North America. Following export from its natural growing regions in Southeast Asia, the fresh fruit may be available seasonally in some local markets like those of Chinatowns.
Mangosteens are available canned and frozen in Western countries. Without fumigation or irradiation (in order to kill the Asian fruit fly) fresh mangosteens were illegal to import into the United States until 2007. Freeze-dried and dehydrated mangosteen flesh can also be found.
Upon arrival in the US in 2007, fresh mangosteen sold at up to $60 per pound in specialty produce stores in New York City, but wider availability and somewhat lower prices have become common in the United States and Canada. Despite efforts described above to grow mangosteen in the Western Hemisphere, nearly the entire supply is imported from Thailand. Canned mangosteens are also available in the United States for a much lower price, but much of the fruit’s unique flavor is lost in the canning process.
Before ripening, the mangosteen shell is fibrous and firm, but becomes soft and easy to pry open when the fruit ripens. To open a mangosteen, the shell can be scored with a knife, pried gently along the score with the thumbs until it cracks, and then pulled apart to reveal the fruit. Alternatively, the mangosteen can be opened without a knife by squeezing the shell from the bottom until it breaks, allowing the shell to be removed and the fruit eaten while intact with the stem. Occasionally, during peeling of ripe fruits, the purple exocarp juice may stain skin or fabric.
Various parts of the plant have a history of use in traditional medicine, mostly in Southeast Asia; it may have been used to treat skin infections, wounds, dysentery, urinary tract infections, and gastrointestinal complaints.
Dried fruits are shipped to Singapore to be processed for medical uses which may include dysentery, skin disorders, and various other minor diseases in several countries across Asia. There is no reliable evidence that mangosteen juice, puree, bark or extracts is effective as a treatment for human diseases.
Naturally-occurring polysaccharide and xanthone compounds are found in the fruit, leaves, and heartwood of the mangosteen. Fully ripe fruit contain xanthones, garthanin, 8-disoxygartanin, and normangostin.
Mangosteen twigs have been used as chew sticks in Ghana, and the wood has been used to make spears and cabinetry in Thailand. The rind of the mangosteen fruit has also been used to tan leather in China.
Fresh mangosteen is marketed for only a short period of six to ten weeks due to its seasonal nature. It is mainly grown by smallholders and sold at fruit stalls by roadsides. Its irregular, short supply leads to wide price fluctuations throughout its season and over the years. Additionally, there is no standard product quality assessment or grading system, making international trade of the fruits difficult. The mangosteen still remains rare in Western markets, though its popularity is increasing, and it is often sold at a high price.
On June 5, 1986, Malaysia began issuing a new set of definitive stamps featuring agricultural produce and fruit with seven low values for each State and eight medium and high values inscribed Malaysia for use in any State. The low values were identical for each State, except for the state name, state crest and ruler, or state crest only for those States without a ruler. The stamps were printed in five color lithography, cyan, yellow, magenta and black with grey for highlighting various areas and a browny-grey shade for the background panel. They were printed on phosphorized ‘Multiple SPM’ paper with a wavy pattern, in sheets of 100, 10 by 10 and had pink gum and were perforated 12 by 12 . The low and medium values were printed by Security Printers Malaysia in Petaling Jaya, near Kuala Lumpur. The 1-ringgit denomination featured the mangosteen (Scott #332). Durian was portrayed on the 80-sen value (Scott #329); I don’t yet have a copy of that stamp.