Perched on a dizzyingly steep slope, in a lush landscape dotted with waterfalls and tall bamboo, Ian Crown celebrated the vindication of what he called his madness in a patch in the jungle. He rustled through the thick, glossy leaves of a 3m-tall tree, plucked a reddish-purple orb, cut around its equator, twisted off a hemisphere of thick rind, and popped a few delicate, snow-white segments into his mouth.
"I've waited so long for this moment," he said last month, savoring the floral, sweet-tart flavor of one of the most delicious of tropical fruits, and certainly the most hyped: the mangosteen.
For decades it has been fam-ously, tantalizingly unavailable on the US mainland, but Crown's Panoramic Fruit Co has sent several test shipments in the past month to New York and Los Angeles. Sherry Yard, the pastry chef at Spago Beverly Hills, was thrilled to be able to taste a few.
"This is like seeing a unicorn," she said.
By next summer Crown hopes to be the first producer in decades to ship fresh mangosteens to the mainland commercially.
Native to Indonesia and Malaysia, mangosteen trees require a highly tropical, humid climate, and they cannot be grown commercially in the contiguous US, although a few determined enthusiasts have coddled them to fruiting in the warmest parts of Florida.
Because fresh mangosteens can harbor insect pests, the Department of Agriculture prohibits their being brought from the main countries that grow them in Southeast Asia, or from Hawaii (Mangosteens smuggled from Canada, where they are permitted because tropical pests cannot survive there, are occasionally sold in New York's Chinatown).
But contrary to its reputation as a forbidden fruit, the mangosteen can be imported legally from 18 Caribbean and Central America countries, as well as from Puerto Rico. Until recently, however, no one cultivated them commercially in those areas.
Enter Crown, 54, a doctor's son with a bachelor's degree in agriculture from Cornell University. After working for garden centers he became a commodities broker, and now is a private investor living in Connecticut with his wife and two cats.
In 1994, beguiled by the ro-mance of old coffee mansions in the jungle, he looked to invest in a Puerto Rican farm. While researching crops to provide shade for coffee trees, he became excited by the promise of exotic fruit farming, and bought a 50 hectare livestock ranch in the foothills east of Mayaguez, which he planted with mangosteen, rambutan, longan and other Asian fruits.
Mangosteen (Garcinia Mangostana) is difficult to propagate by convenient methods like grafting, and when raised from seed takes eight to 10 years or longer to bear fruit, a major disincentive for aspiring growers.
"It's incredibly irritating," Crown said.
After much searching he obtained mangosteen seeds and seedlings from Hawaii and Florida, babied the young trees for two years in a shaded nursery, and planted them on his farm. He then found, to his dismay, that young mangosteens have weak roots. At the time he did not have irrigation, and more than half died.
"The attrition was terrible," he said. "I learned everything the `two-by-four in the forehead' way."
Things got worse. In 1997 local youths burned most of his plantings to the ground, and in 1998 Hurricane Georges swept through like "a weed whacker combined with a vacuum cleaner," he said.