What is a mangosteen?
The mangosteen fruit, although well known in tropical and subtropical climates, is a relative stranger to most other countries. Given its name, the mangosteen may be easily confused as a hybrid of the mango. Although the mangosteen and the mango are of the same family and grow in the same areas, these two fruits not only look different, they have a much different taste.
A mangosteen fruit is approximately the same size as an orange, but with a deep purplish-colored skin. The outer rind of a mangosteen is very leathery, with scars, and serves to protect the delicious inner pulp. Found on each mangosteen fruit is a scar at one end, displaying remnants of the flower that once grew there. Interestingly, based on the number of flower segments still found in the scar, one can tell how many segments of fruit will be found inside.
The taste of a mangosteen has been likened to that of no other fruit, hence the nickname “Queen of Fruits” or “Food of the Gods” on some Caribbean islands. While it’s difficult to describe its taste, many people compare it to a cross between strawberries and oranges, with just a touch of acidity. However, the texture of the rich inner pulp is much like a ripe plum. Traditionally, the mangosteen is a fruit best experienced fresh and unprocessed. However, as it begins to gain popularity in countries all over the world, mangosteen can be found canned or frozen, and is made into syrup, preserves, and, most popularly, juice.
The Origin of Mangosteen
While Chinese and ayurvedic practitioners have known of the high nutritional and medicinal value of the mangosteen for hundreds of years, it was first “discovered” by the French explorer Laurentiers Garcin in the 1700s. It is from him that the scientific name for mangosteen, Garcinia mangostana, comes.
The mangosteen tree does not grow well as a “wild plant,” and fares best if it is cultivated in the perfect climate. Most of the plants are found in Thailand, a country so enamoured of the mangosteen, it adopted it as its national fruit.
Although efforts have been made to grow orchards, because of their finicky growth patterns and unpredictable harvest times, mangosteen trees are mostly found along the banks of rivers or lakes, as the tree roots need almost constant moisture.
Because of governmental regulations, import of the fresh mangosteen fruit into the United States is illegal. Fears of introducing the devastating Asian fruit fly into the country have mainly kept the fruits themselves from crossing the borders, although occasionally one may find a mangosteen fruit on the shelves of a small Asian grocery store. And because mangosteen trees only grow in certain climates, attempts to cultivate the fruit within the country have yet to “fruitfully” succeed.
Making it additionally difficult to mass-produce mangosteen, a tree takes many years after planting to begin producing fruit. From the time of planting a mangosteen seed, the growing tree will take ten years or more to start producing fruit. Uncharacteristically for a tropical fruit tree, the mangosteen tree will only grow to about 10 to 20 feet in height. Once it matures to full growth, one average tree will produce approximately 500 mangosteen fruits per harvest. However, the longer a mangosteen tree stands, the higher the yield. There have been reports of 30-year-old mangosteen trees producing up to 2000 fruits in one season.
As mentioned, the import of mangosteen into the United States is currently illegal due to health regulations. However, fresh mangosteen can be found in countries like Thailand, the Philippines, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Cuba, sparingly in Puerto Rico, and scattered around the West Indies.
Care should be taken when eating a fresh mangosteen. The outer rind is quite hard and leathery, and the deep purple-red juice of the rind stains nearly anything it comes into contact with. Traditionally, the shell of the mangosteen should be broken by hand, not cut with a knife. As the rind begins to crack, the delicious inner fruit segments may be peeled away. To enjoy mangosteen to its fullest, one should avoid the hard, leathery outer shell by pulling the segments out before eating, as the sap from the shell is quite bitter and unpleasant.
It may be possible to find canned mangosteen; however, it is widely known that through the process of canning, much is lost in terms of the fruit’s flavor. In the Philippines, many of those who attempt to preserve the fruit will boil them first in a heavy brown sugar syrup.
Other Uses of Mangosteen
While the rind of mangosteen is sometimes used in tanning leather, and the twigs from the trees are favorite “chewsticks” for those in Ghana, the most popular alternative use of mangosteen is nutritional and medicinal.
From Singapore to China, different aspects of the fruit are used to treat and heal a wide variety of medical afflictions. From dysentery to eczema, it appears that scientifically the mangosteen has a multitude of beneficial uses.
It is believed that much of the reason why mangosteen is such a powerful curative is because of its high level of xanthones, which are biologically active plant phenols that are somewhat similar to flavonoids. While most fruits contain xanthones, the mangosteen appears to encompass at least 40 of the currently discovered 200 types of xanthones, making it incredibly rich in its nutritional properties. Indeed, it is somewhat of a “wonder fruit,” in that it is the only fruit as yet known to science to contain such a high percentage of xanthones.
In addition, mangosteen is also high in several other necessary nutritional properties, including fiber, calcium, iron, and thiamine.
Given its delicious taste and exponential nutritional value, the mangosteen is truly deserving of its nickname – “Queen of Fruits.”