Checking in to our Fort Cochin Hotel, the friendly staff invited us to relax in the garden while waiting for our room. We didn’t need an invitation – I was already out there craning my neck to see what caused the dappling in the courtyard. It was an enormous mango tree, and as I looked up something caught my eye. There was someone sitting on a branch, a very long way up.
The next thing I saw was a basket of luscious mangoes sitting on the ground. Smooth skinned and blemish free, they looked delicious and my mind was smelling and tasting them even though they weren’t quite ripe. They begged to be touched, and picked up, so I did – feeling their beautiful texture and shape. The mangoes were from the majestic tree, and picking was in progress.
This tree really is very large, especially to my eyes that envision a mango tree to be small to medium sized, nothing as colossal as this. Mangoes always conjure up tropical excitement for a girl from country NSW where it’s too dry and cold for them. So you can see I was quite taken with it. There were two men – one up the tree and one on the ground – and they were picking the mangoes. The tree was laden with large fruit – some almost 1 kg, and the hotel didn’t want to risk them being ‘served’ on dining guests’ heads below. Given I was one of the guests about to be sitting under the tree, I supported their decision. A mango falling from such a height may not do as much damage as a coconut, but I didn’t want to take the first step to a comparison!
So the hotel has an agreement with these local guys. They pick the mangoes and do some tree maintenance throughout the year and they are paid in mangoes to take away and sell. It seemed strange to me the hotel doesn’t use them, but then there would have been more than 150 kgs of them, which would stretch the limits of any hotel menu – let alone a boutique place like the Old Harbour Hotel. We were told they were Salem mangoes (probably Salem Benglura originally from Salem in Tamil Nadu), a variety cultivated year round in southern India.
In many western cities they would be labelled ‘hand-picked’ with a hiked up price to match. Here picking mangoes by hand is normal, if seriously risky. One guy climbs the tree, with not a safety harness in sight, and uses a long pole with a scoop net attached to the end. He collects the fruit with this while perched on the branch, and transfers it to a hanging basket which is held by a rope over the branch. When the basket is full, the guy on the ground helps with manoeuvring the rope system to slowly lower the mango-filled basket. Judging by the stacked crates there were quite a few loads done and still to do. A delicate but simple operation – fun to watch while sipping juice from a coconut (not under the mango tree), waiting for your room.
The mango tree (Mangifera indica) is an excellent shade tree, ideal for hot climates where it provides a cooling canopy. It is a long-lived tree, surviving up to 300 years, which this specimen is approaching with its estimated age of 250 years. In warm areas they are fast growing and can climb to 30 metres – as the picker did! It originated in southern Asia, spreading later to eastern Asia and eastern Africa, and has been around in the wild for thousands of years. It has been propagated in India for the last 400 years, but the fruit were first taken to Europe and England only during the 1800s with the British occupation. India is the largest producer of mangoes and there may be over 1000 varieties!
The mango tree is just one of many magnificent specimens around Fort Cochin that add to the town’s heritage charm. In the street outside and visible from near ‘my’ mango tree, is a row of massive rain trees about 300 years old – dating them to the Portuguese era in Fort Cochin. Their heritage importance is taken seriously by local businesses that rely on the tourists who visit Cochin for its exotic mix of Dutch and Portuguese colonial enchantment. Recently, someone started digging trenches through their root zones to put down new paving. The business lobby had that stopped before any damage resulted. A better solution was found, with no cutting through precious roots!
At the time of my visit in March the weather was very humid, so much of my time was spent taking refuge from the heat rather than out and about tree spotting. Here is a small sample of trees I did manage to see, marvel at, and photograph.
The Bodhi tree below is known as The Weathervane Tree, its roots growing over the rectangular metal structure of an old weathervane that helped sailors approach Fort Cochin, with an old metal ladder rusting inside for access into the treetop.
The mango tree is located in the garden at the Old Harbour Hotel, Fort Cochin, Kerala in southern India. A colonial boutique hotel, the original building was built around 300 years ago and has been tastefully restored. The gardens are a significant feature, central to staying at the hotel and its special charm.