20 Jul 2022

Indian mango tree, father of 300 varieties including 'Sachin', 'Aishwarya'

Every day, Indian octogenarian Kaleem Ullah Khan wakes at dawn, says a prayer, then treks about a mile to his 120-year-old mango tree, which over the years has produced more than 300 varieties of the popular fruit.
His steps quicken as he approaches and his eyes light up as he looks closely at the branches through his glasses, caressing the leaves and sniffing the fruits to see if they are ripe.

"This is my reward for toiling hard in the scorching sun for decades," said the 82-year-old in his orchard in the small town of Malihabad.

"To the naked eye, it's just a tree. But if you look through your mind, it's a tree, an orchard, and the biggest mango school in the world."

The school dropout was just a teenager when he conducted his first experiment in grafting, or joining plant parts together, to create new mango varieties.

He raised the tree to bear seven new kinds of fruit, but it fell in a storm.

But since 1987, his pride and joy has been a 120-year-old specimen, the source of more than 300 different varieties of mango, each with its own flavor, texture, color and size, he says.

One of the first varieties he named "Aishwarya" after Bollywood star and 1994 Miss World winner Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. It remains one of his "best creations" to this day.

"The mango is as beautiful as the actress. One mango weighs more than a kilogram (two pounds), has a crimson tinge on the outer skin and tastes very sweet," Khan said.

He named others in honor of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and cricket hero Sachin Tendulkar. Another is the 'Anarkali', or pomegranate flower, and has two layers of different skins and two different pulps, each with a distinct aroma.

"People will come and go, but mangoes will remain forever and years from now, whenever this Sachin mango is eaten, people will remember the cricketing hero," said the father of eight.

A famous fruit

Its prized tree, nine meters (30 feet) tall, has a stout trunk with wide-spreading, thick branches that provide pleasant shade from the scorching summer sun.

The leaves are a mosaic of different textures and scents. In some places they are yellow and shiny, in others they are dark, dull green.

"No two fingerprints are the same and no two mango varieties are alike. Nature has endowed mangoes with traits like humans," Khan said.

His method of grafting is complex and involves painstakingly cutting a branch from one variety and leaving an open wound into which a branch from another variety is woven and taped.

"Once the joint has hardened, I'll remove the tape and hopefully this new branch will be ready by next season and bear the new variety after two years," he explained.

Khan's skills have earned him numerous awards, among them one of India's highest civilian honors in 2008, as well as invitations to Iran and the United Arab Emirates.

“I can grow mangoes even in the desert,” he says.

Climate threat

India is the largest producer of mangoes, accounting for half of global production. Malihabad in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh has more than 30,000 hectares of orchards and accounts for nearly 25 percent of the national crop.

The orchards, mostly owned by families for generations, are a paradise for mango lovers. The most famous variety is probably the Dasheri melt, named after the nearby village where it originated in the 18th century.

But farmers are worried about climate change, with this year's heat destroying 90 percent of the local crop, according to the All-India Mango Growers Association.

The number of varieties has also decreased, which Khan blames on intensive farming techniques and the widespread use of cheap fertilizers and insecticides.

Growers also plant too many trees packed too tightly together, leaving no room for moisture and dew to settle on the leaves, he says.

But he still has a good life, he says.

"I recently moved to a new house on a farm to be closer to my beloved tree, which I will work on until my last breath."

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