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A Son Finds Joy Cultivating the Fruit Trees His Late Father Once Loved

Fruits of his Labors: In a Mesa garden, a son honors his father’s legacy.

By Nora Burba Trulsson | Photography by Melissa Valladares

On an unseasonably warm afternoon, Alexander Falkenstein leads a tour of his family’s garden, trailed by several of the 19 chickens and two of the four dogs who also call the backyard home. Winding past a greenhouse and dodging low branches, he points out many of the 65-plus fruit-bearing plants and trees that create a tangled, jungle-like setting on the three-quarter-acre property.

Alexander Falkenstein tends to a mango tree, one of dozens of exotic fruit varieties that grow in his family’s garden.

An investment manager by profession who lives in Phoenix, Alexander easily rattles off facts as he strolls through the yard. “This is a lemon zest mango. If the fruit twists off easily, it’s ripe. It continues ripening if you leave it on the counter. Over here, we’ve got some dragon fruit, which you have to hand-pollinate at night because you can’t always rely on moths and bees. Our three jabuticabas—Brazilian grape trees—produce the most fruit of any in this state, and the Aravaipa avocado tree was grown from cuttings. They think the first one grew after a Mexican migrant accidentally dropped an avocado seed in the Aravaipa Canyon in Arizona and it grew into a huge tree.”

The garden tour continues for nearly an hour, and it becomes clear that Alexander is passionate about what’s growing there—it is his labor of love. However, he admits he was a reluctant gardener at first. “I grew up in this house along with my brother, Christian,” he says of the home in a well-established Mesa neighborhood. “The garden was my father’s hobby, and we paid no attention to it.”

Falkenstein’s father, Alois Falkenstein, an eye surgeon, and his mother, Jane, bought the house in 1978 when they moved to Arizona to open up a private ophthalmology practice. “This was a new development,” recalls Jane, “and there was nothing in the yard but the pool and some tumbleweeds.” As his medical practice and family grew, Alois began growing fruit in the yard—citrus and grapes at first—as a relaxing hobby.

Get to Know Mangos

Though the Falkenstein garden is filled with dozens of exotic fruit varieties, mangos are among Alexander’s favorites. Here are the four he grows.

  • Carrie Mango (Mangifera indica ‘Carrie’)
    Oblong or oval-shaped, medium size, green to yellow when ripe. Sweet, tropical fruit notes with hints of citrus and relatively no fibers.
  • Keitt Mango (Mangifera indica ‘Keitt’)
    One of the largest mango varieties, typically more than one pound, stays green. Smooth flesh, nearly fiber-free, with a sweet, juicy pineapple note.
  • Kent Mango (Mangifera indica ‘Kent’)
    Large, oval-shaped, typically green with some red blush or speckles on the skin. Sweet, tropical flavor, juicy.
  • Lemon Zest Mango (Mangifera indica L.)
    Oblong, small, yellow mango. Mostly tart, but sweeter as it ripens, with a strong citrus/lemon flavor.

He expanded into exotic fruit at a time when little was available at grocery stores, trading seeds, cuttings and plants with other enthusiasts, ordering things through the mail and picking up fruit prospects on trips. “My father would come home from work, go into the garden for a few hours, then help with dinner,” recalls Alexander. “Our dessert was usually fruit.”

Over the years, Alois built a community of like-minded gardeners, helping to start the Arizona Chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers, lecturing on the topic, writing papers, sharing knowledge and mentoring others. “My father was one of the smartest people I ever knew,” says Alexander of his German-born parent. “With his background in surgery and chemistry, he was very precise with things like grafting and experimenting.”

Indeed, the garden became one large horticultural experiment, with pruning schedules, hybridizing, thermometers set up in different parts of the yard to monitor frost and heat, trials with fertilizers and soil supplements, trellises built for different plants, and replacements for plants that shriveled or froze. Propelled by Alois’ curiosity, the garden was constantly evolving and changing, yielding everything from apricots and bananas to vanilla beans and zapote, a Central American fruit. Taller trees shaded smaller ones and shrubs, and the neighborhood’s flood irrigation system provided plentiful water, which created a microclimate unique to the area.

As the garden grew, its significance as a horticultural tour de force was lost on Alexander and his brother. “It was my father’s thing,” Alexander remembers, “and all I knew was that we never had Red Delicious apples in the house like most families. It always seemed like a punishment to help with the yard.”

All that changed when Alois became ill several years ago, and Alexander moved back in temporarily to help his mother. Though his father never pushed him or insisted he take care of the fruit, Alexander began venturing out into the yard, watering, pruning and cleaning. “Back then, I didn’t know what was in the yard,” he admits.

“By doing this, I found out how many people loved and respected my father. I didn’t realize how accomplished he was until I started understanding his garden and making that connection. ”
—Alexander Falkenstein, gardener

After his father died in 2015, Alexander moved back to Phoenix, intending to help his mother with the house for a year, with the likelihood of selling the property. But as his mother settled into her new life in the house, Alexander, too, was drawn back to the home and began spending several hours a week in the backyard, tending the fruit. He realized being in the garden was a way to reflect on his own life and reconnect with his father. He also reached out to many of his father’s horticultural colleagues for growing tips and help with identifying the fruits.

“I started giving away the fruit to friends and co-workers,” says Alexander of the nearly year-round bounty that emerges from the garden. “I don’t like selling it. It seems wrong.” He also uses the garden as a metaphor for growing investments when he discusses financial strategies with banking clients. Like his father, Alexander, too, joined the Arizona Chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers, gives talks on the subject and has started growing exotic fruit in his Phoenix backyard.

“By doing this, I found out how many people loved and respected my father,” Alexander says. “I didn’t realize how accomplished he was until I started understanding his garden and making that connection. I consider it a blessing to be given this opportunity. My father would be happy that I’m happy.”
Want to try your hand at growing exotic fruit? GreenLife by Shamus O’Leary nursery in Phoenix is a good source for trees and plants, plus tips.

greenlifebyshamusoleary.com

How To Cut a Mango

There are many ways to slice a mango, but Alexander Falkenstein prefers these two methods.

  1. Starting at the top of the mango, cut down to the seed on both sides, then cut the flesh with peel on both sides.

2.  Slice the halves into quarters lengthwise, then enjoy.

3. Alternatively, score the halves into cubes without cutting through the peel. Use a spoon or a knife to scrape the cubes off the peel.

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