What better destination for escaping the harsh winters of the Northeast than to a tropical island? I left Pennsylvania in late February with the snow up to my knees and temperatures way below freezing. I took an overnight flight from New Jersey lasting only five hours and awoke to a Trinidad sunrise, a welcome sight as I walked out of the airport into the warm morning breeze of the Caribbean Sea. So began my third visit to this tropical island, which to me is becoming a home away from home.
Trinidad is a Caribbean island just north of Venezuela. Being close to the equator, it is blessed with a beautiful climate that is perfect for growing most tropical fruits. Take a walk in any direction and you will notice at least a couple fruit trees growing on each block. Rarely will you see a home in Trinidad without some kind of fruit tree. Mango trees nearly 30 feet tall, papaya growing wild on the side of the highways, banana trees of all shapes—these are among the most common on this island.
My visit was during the dry season, and Trinidad was experiencing a severe drought, with no rain for the previous two months, which is very unusual. Some fruit trees were suffering from the drought and did not bear fruit at the time. However I was still able to enjoy a large variety of fruit. One of the best places to see all different varieties of fruit that were in season was at the market. I got to see and taste for the first time the Spanish tamarind, Vangueria madagascariensis. This fruit is not related to the common tamarind, Tamarindus indica. It’s not even from Africa or Asia; rather, it is native to Madagascar. It definitely tastes similar to sweet tamarind, but has its own unique flavor. Another fruit I found at the market was the mammee apple, Mammea americana. It is reminiscent of apricot with its inner color and flavor, which is why they call it apricot in different parts of the Caribbean. It was very tasty with a combined flavor of apricot and melon. It’s definitely a pleasure to sample the various fruits from the market, but what’s more enjoyable to me is growing them. I enjoy watching the trees being loaded with fruit and picking the fruit right from the tree. I took a short walk from where I was staying in San Fernando, the second largest town in Trinidad, and I came across a large mango tree, at least 30 feet tall. Right away I noticed ripe yellow mangos on the tree, but they were the smallest I’d ever seen. So picked some, then asked one of the locals about what variety of mango could it be. He replied that it is called “Doudouce.” Despite their small size, these mangos were super sweet and delicious.
I have always dreamt of having a large property with a wide collection of rare fruit trees. But here on Trinidad someone already lives my dream, at the La Vega Estate in Gran Couva, about 20 minutes from San Fernando. I took a scenic drive through the winding roads, passing through cocoa and coffee plantations along the way. This was my third time visiting La Vega, which stands out with its beautiful landscape. Mr. Bertram Manhin created a tropical fruit paradise in central Trinidad. In 1983 he purchased a semi-abandoned orchard, where cocoa and Coffee Robusta, as well as a few fruit trees, had originally been grown. He did not have a plan on hand of what to make of it, but he always enjoyed tropical plants and fruit trees, so he collected and grew many different flowers, tropical plants and various fruit trees adding to the existing fruit trees already existed in the estate. He now has more than 100 types of fruit trees; many of them have more than one variety. He later added a greenhouse where he propagated and sold rare ornamentals and landscape plants, as well as fruit trees. Eventually he opened a garden center in nearby San Fernando. La Vega Estate continued developing and is now a recreation park with a large lake—see the photo beneath the title of this article. Visitors can enjoy fishing at the lake, paddle boating, mountain biking, different nature trails, as well as several picnic areas. Mr. Manhin took me on a tour of his 240-acre property and showed me the many different fruit trees he has collected over the years. Among them were some really large mango trees that he started from seeds. They were blooming and fruiting. He enjoys growing trees from seed and waiting a few years until they begin bearing fruit. Mango seedlings may end up with similar or different characteristics than the mother tree. Manhin usually ends up with his own unique varieties since the trees are grown from seed. “That’s the whole excitement, not knowing what quality of fruit you will end up with,”he said with a smile. To his surprise many of these seedlings turned out to be among the best in terms of their fruit quality. The several guava varieties I saw were suffering from a serious fruit fly infestation. Instead of controlling the pests by spraying, Manhin chose an organic method—bagging the fruit. I also found the miracle fruit bush, which originated in western Africa. After eating its small berry, I was able to try sour lemons from a nearby tree, and they tasted sweet. There were many large trees of star apple, known in Trinidad as caimit.
Its fruit is round and purple, and when one is cut in half you can see why it’s called star apple. It has a jelly-like consistency and is very sweet. I was able to sample many tropical fruits for the first time, such as mamey, canistel, black sapote and others. Bertram Manhin built a house on a hill overlooking his beautiful estate. It is a dream home for fruit and nature lovers. He showed me many of the various fruit trees and fruiting plants surrounding his house—bananas, longans, Indian jujubes, sugar apples, pineapples and more. Next to his residence is a small greenhouse where he keeps some of his valuable plants that he watches closely. Some of these are orchids and rare fruit trees such as giant Indian jujubes that he imported from Thailand.
Trinidadians grow many ornamental and fruit trees that were introduced by Manhin years ago. One of the most popular fruits in Trinidad is dwarf pommecythere, also known as June plum, Spondia dulcis, which he introduced from Southeast Asia. This plant attains only about 5 feet and can bear a good crop of fruit. It is usually propagated from seeds, and seedlings also grow to resemble the parent. Seedlings start bearing within nine months. The fruit can
be eaten green, pickled with spices or eaten fully ripe. This fruit became so popular that
three out of ten Trinidadian gardens have at least one dwarf pommecythere tree.
Several years ago I shared a couple of fig varieties with Manhin to try. On this trip I was glad to see that one of my fig trees was at least 6 feet tall and fruiting. Because of the wet weather it is grown in a large container of sandy soil mix.
As I ended my visit to La Vega I carried away several fruits and lots of photos. I have
learned a great deal from Bertram Manhin who is very knowledgeable of all the types
of fruit trees, and knows the Latin names
for all of them. Unfortunately he could not
spare sufficient time to answer all the questions
I wanted to ask. If you ever have a
chance to visit Trinidad and Tobago, make
La Vega Estate a high point of your trip.
You can obtain more information at their
Story and images by : Bassem Samaan