Mangosteen, Mennonites, And The Mayan Mountains—A Slice Of Belize Country Life
One of the things I love about living in Belize is its capacity to surprise with discoveries of hidden, unsuspected jewels. One of these is the traditional Mennonite settlement of Springfield.
Located 9 miles south of the capital of Belmopan, getting to Springfield requires a trip on the country’s most scenic road, the Hummingbird Highway. This portion of the highway is lined with the Mayan mountains in the distance, while individual jungle-covered peaks pop out to both sides of the highway.
Lush does not begin to describe these hills. The bottom layer is a green carpet of the varied rain forest bushes and trees. Above these, individual trees of different kinds stand out. Higher still are the huge, graceful crowns of palms. The three-dimensional nature of the landscape is stunning…
When you turn off the highway towards Springfield, following the sign to All Citrus Nursery, it feels like you have stepped through the Narnia wardrobe to a world 100 years back in time. Soon after turning onto the dirt road, you pass a stream next to a typical Belizean house where you’ll often see women doing their laundry in a stream.
As you travel down the dirt road, you’ll likely encounter horse-drawn carts, wooden vehicles piloted by Mennonites in traditional long pants and long-sleeved shirts, suspenders, and straw hats. You may see children along the road… the boys dressed like their fathers, the girls with long hair and long cotton dresses, complete with straw hats and dusty bare feet.
My first regular stop is White Rock Farm, run and owned by a British couple.
Driving into their yard, you’re instantly surrounded by ducks, geese, chickens, turkeys, and probably some other fowl I haven’t remembered. This is the place to come for fresh, homemade cheeses—blue, brie, and more different versions of cheddar than many know exist. They also sell free-range eggs, chickens, and turkeys, as well as raw milk, butter, and other goodies. Bring your cooler—you don’t want these delicious items to go bad in the heat of your car!
The All Citrus Nursery is owned by a remarkable Mennonite named David who’s gifted with one of the greenest thumbs in Belize. Before meeting him, I’d heard rumors about his extensive familiarity with the plants of his adopted home in Belize (he was born here but raised in Canada). Apparently, he could identify 65 different species of mango by the bark and leaves alone. When I told him this, he laughed, “probably not that many,” he admitted. “The foliage and bark on a lot of them are similar.” But now knowing him, I find the rumor believable and suspect he’s just being modest.
The tiny reception area of his business, consisting of a table, a rusted desk with empty drawers, and a bulletin board with pictures of featured plants and fruits, is covered with a green translucent tarp that serves as a sunshade. It is draped over the office and the main growing area as well.
“Have you ever had a mangosteen?” David asked me last time we were there. My previous exposure to mangosteen had been of a product made from its juice. I’d never seen or tasted the fruit itself.
He held out a fruit the size, shape, and color of a large beet, with a thick rigid skin. He broke it open to reveal a shiny white segmented fruit, kind of like a slippery white tangerine. “Here, have some. There’s a seed in this corner,” he said demonstrating. The fruit was sweet and delicious. We sucked the more fibrous outside of each segment and the softer innards away from the seeds, then let them fall into his outstretched palm for recycling.
“Come back in December, we’ll have some trees then,” he informed me, turning his attention to address a Latino family that had just pulled up and piled out of their SUV.
In a country so lush that branches stuck into the ground as fence posts often sprout into trees, the array of plants available is stunning. David takes advantage of the wealth by grafting his fruit trees, so you can get two or three different kinds of fruit off one tree. You get more bang for your buck that way, as well as more produce in less space. We’ve planted trees that promise to provide three different kinds of citrus, and two distinct kinds of avocado, each ripening at different times of year.
In addition to fruit trees and flowering trees, David also has a huge supply of herb plants, as well as knowledge of their uses. The lemon tea bush that now grows at the foot of our stairs is used in the Philippines for reducing high blood pressure, did I know that?
David solved a lifelong mystery for me once. While in my 20s, I came across the most delicious mint plant I’d ever smelled or tasted—candy mint. It was outside of a nursery in Sarasota, Florida, that I first encountered it… I haven’t seen it anywhere since, despite frequently asking about it. To my delight and amazement, David has it, and on a regular basis he gifts me it. The regularity of supply is a blessing to me, as I seem to kill my candy mint with regularity. David can always replenish it for me.
David’s young sons are regular contributors to the agricultural world. Once David gave me an apple mint instead of a candy mint. His barefoot son, probably not more than 7, was quick to correct him and give me the herb I really wanted.