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Mad about mangoes

That's Mark Safko. (And mangoes appear to like him too.) He babies the succulent fruit, more at home a bit further south, and his persistence and passion have paid off in prized harvests of many varieties.

By MARY JANE PARK

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 30, 2001


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[Times photos: Fred Victorin]
Mark Safko, known to friends as the Mango Man, comes by his moniker logically: He grows several mango varieties in his garden, including grafted trees on which several species of the fruit grow.
ST. PETERSBURG -- Mark Safko is a madman. This is no disparagement: He is respectably employed. He lives in a tidy house, tends an enviable garden and drives a late-model Volvo. On its rear window is a decal that suggests his mania: "Mangoman."

Safko is a third-generation Floridian, whose parents grew up in South Florida. His maternal grandfather tended five different varieties of mango.

Safko spent his childhood in St. Petersburg, where the fruit was relatively rare outside produce stands and grocery stores. "Still, I had a love for mangoes," he says.

For 18 years, Mango Man lived in the first house he bought as an adult, in St. Petersburg's Pinellas Point neighborhood. There, he started with Hadens, which are commonly available in stores. In the garden of the northeast St. Petersburg house where he has lived for the past 11 years, he grows Hadens and Kents, another common commercial variety, plus 14 others that are more perishable and thus more difficult to find in the marketplace.

Some are dwarf varieties; others, late bloomers. Some are multiple grafts; that is, several varieties grow on one tree.

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The Kent mango.
These days, with "feels-like" temperatures hovering at 100, Mango Man can relax. He has boxes of fragrant, ripening mangoes to share with friends, family and co-workers at the Mahaffey Co., which builds and develops apartment complexes.

In a couple of weeks, he and his wife, Paula, a North Carolinian, will make their annual pilgrimage to the International Mango Festival at Fairchild Tropical Garden in Coral Gables. They have two sons, Blake, 17, and Derek, 16, and two standard poodles.

At the festival, the Safkos probably will purchase a few more varieties. They'll compare notes with other enthusiasts, and Safko will counsel those who want to grow the luscious fruit successfully this far north. Passion isn't enough, he'll tell them.

You want instant gratification? Here: Have a slice of Glenn, from one of his trees.

Producing them takes patience: Young trees are especially vulnerable to cold. If it gets down to 40 degrees outside, Mango Man wraps the tree bases in towels and blankets. He has some old kerosene grove heaters in a shed out back, and he fires those up to warm the air.

"I stay up all night so it doesn't burn my house down," he says.

When warm weather returns, and after the trees bloom, he pulls off the fruit when it gets to be the size of peas. The idea is to push the growth of the tree instead of the fruit, to strengthen the trunk. Over four or five years, he pampers them. It takes that long to get the wood hardy enough to tolerate cold.

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The Haden.
"This far north (in Florida)," Safko says, "to do what I have done. . . ." His voice trails off, and he looks out proudly at his orchard, trees heavy with pendulous fruit.

These are the 5-year-olds, from which he is harvesting the first crop now, about a week after mangoes in South Florida ripen. With so many varieties, including some late bloomers, some of his trees should bear fruit until around Labor Day.

The 5-year-olds require little attention, Safko says. A cold snap will cost them some branches, "but it's natural pruning." They are drought-tolerant and require little fertilizer.

Safko likes to drive to Pine Island in search of mangoes. It's a road trip of about an hour and 45 minutes from St. Petersburg. His favorite haunts are a fruit market that offers seven or eight varieties of exotic mangoes and five varieties of lychees, and a nursery from which he buys plants -- mangoes, bananas, citrus.

Do people think he's crazy?

"Yeah," Mango Man says. "They do."

* * *

What: International Mango Festival

When: July 14 and 15

Where: Fairchild Tropical Garden, 10901 Old Cutler Road, Coral Gables

Details: Mango tree sales, tastings, market, workshops, demonstrations, fruit contest, cookoff, brunch (sold out), auction.

Admission: Varies for events

Information: (305) 667-1651; on the Web: www.fairchildgarden.org

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