Citrus Specialties

– Posted in: Garden Photography

'Michal' mandarin citrus fruit

I recognize that this post is not really about gardening.  I also realize that you readers who are holed up in cold climates may have no  patience with California garden columns.  Citrus, succulents, daffodils in December, year ’round lettuces.  Well, so be it; this is California winter.  This is what I see.

Today I see citrus.  Not your backyard ordinary (for California) navel or Valencia orange, but the kind that are grown for the increasingly specialty markets.  The citrus I saw at the University of California’s Lincove Research Station are for farmers. There is no doubt some of these research specimens will end up sold by nurseries to discerning homeowners, but Lindcove exists to help California farmers.

citrus varieties at Lindcove reseach facility

I was introduced to the citrus industry by Lance Walheim, the best citrus writer around.  Lance is not only one of the most respected garden writers around, he is a citrus farmer.  About 25 years ago, after researching and writing several popular citrus books, he decided to buy a ranch to grow specialty citrus.  He was convinced he could grow mandarins, blood oranges, and Meyer lemons for an emerging new market of foodies.   He was seen peddling boxes of fruit at renowned Northern California food outlets such as Oakville Market in Napa or Monterey Market in Berkeley.

Demand far outstripped supply – he bought the ranch.  He found a farmer who was retiring his 17 acres of Valencias in the choice citrus region of Exeter, California where the micro-climate was a degree or two warmer than the surrounding farms of Tulare County in the Central Valley.  Here, he slowly replanted, half acre by half acre, trying this and that, often pre-selling entire crops of blood oranges to the Japanese who have long had a keen sense of perfection in fruit.

gold nugget mandarine orange

Today, Lance has entirely replanted the 17 acres of Valencias and continues to refine his crops to what the market will buy.  He still grows Meyer lemons for loyal customers, is pulling out Bergamots, experimenting with Yuzu (think Ponzu sauce), and harvesting his Page mandarins the day I visited.  He closely follows the University of California research experiments, and invited me to the recent tasting.

grapefruit tasting

Citrus is a huge industry in California and farmers are under constant pressure.  Freezes can wipe out crops (Lance was up several time at night, watching the temperature go into the 20s while I visited).  There are droughts, pestilence (the Asian citrus psyllid is already threatening to devastate Florida citrus), and price fluctuations when the big growers bring their crop to market.

citrus farmers

Farmers need to keep abreast of new developments and the research at Lindcove is invaluable.  The annual tasting event is an opportunity to actually see all the fruit and tour the foundation block of trees being tested.  The event is not the best time to taste all the fruit, as citrus has a long season and no one day is best for all fruit.  I learned, for instance that the “Cutie” mandarine tangerines I so love to buy by the case at the market are actually several different named varieties, depending on the season.  Cutie is a brand not a specific fruit.

Farmers need do consider many factors when deciding what to grow, ripening time, sweetness and sugar content, yield per tree, fruit shape and color, cold and heat hardiness all factor into choices.  This is why the University of California agriculture research is so important.

citrus tasting at Lindcove

For me though, I just wanted to see all the choices – and have some taste treats.  In truth, it is hard to really tell dramatic differences, given all the variables of tasting this one day in this one season, and there was no way to cleanse the palette after each taste.  My mouth puckered on more than one sample and I exclaimed on more than one fruit that Lance dismissed as unripe.

pomello tasting

But, I will certainly be watching for a few varieties if they ever get to a specialty market near me.  The ‘Sue Linda’ tangor (tangor is a cross between tangerine and orange) was silky sweet.  The ‘Cocktail’ Pummelo hybrid sure deserves to be known by mixologists.  ‘Ray Ruby’ grapefruit seems to have a more complex flavor that my favorite ‘Rio Red’.  And after tasting a ‘Torocco’ blood orange I now “get” why these fruits are so trendy.

So maybe most of our Gardening Gone Wild readers will not get any tips for their gardens, you may very well know what to look for in the market.  And for more about these specialty fruit and some recipes there is a website, named not surprisingly:  California Citrus Specialties.

 

Saxon Holt

Saxon Holt is the owner of PhotoBotanic, a garden picture resource for photographs, workshops, and garden photography stories. A landscape photographer and award winning photojournalist with more than 20 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California.

Saxon Holt

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Laura December 21, 2011, 8:43 am

I remember so well the first times I would take a blood orange out of my lunch box and people would ask me what that was. It was 20 years ago, the fruit was still hard to find and really expensive. Twenty years later there are enough trees that have been planted by smart growers to offer a steady supply to the Italian foodies like me who can’t stop eating blood oranges. I even made a marmalade with them, the color was outstanding.

My favorite farmer at my local market is a guy named Matteo, an Italian immigrant who bought a farm years ago and started planting citrus tree, he has an amazing selection.

Sadly my blood orange tree doesn’t like the weather in Marin county and hasn’t bloomed in the three years we have had it. I want to find a place for it instead of tossing it. I need to find someone with a warmer garden, one day…
I have the book you mentioned, really informative and I met the writer years ago when he was presenting citrus varieties to a Baker Dozen’s meeting, really informative.

Thanks for writing this post.

And thanks commenting Laura. I know my friend bought his ranch near Visalia specifically because it was good for blood oranges. As to the more temperate Marin, he gave me a ‘Pixie’ mandarin that works great for me. – Saxon

Nicole December 21, 2011, 12:32 pm

I enjoyed your post and lovely photos.

About 15 years ago in Trinidad there was a farmer in an old rural agricultural area who used to get credit from my father in law, and when his crops came in season he would drop off bags of produce, mangoes and citrus, as gifts, which my father in law passed on to us.

There was one fruit which the farmer had bred which we still remember today, it was small like an orange, deep pink inside and tasted like a supersweet and fragrant grapefruit. He told my father in law he grew these only for his family. How I wish we had asked for the farmer’s name/address so we could try to find his children and find that fabulous fruit!

I will ask my friend Lance about this fruit. There are SO many new things…On the other hand there are one of a kind things that could be a local hybrid that deserves to be in cultivation. – Saxon

Debra Lee Baldwin December 21, 2011, 1:09 pm

Hi, Saxon — Great post, full of liquid AND photographic sunshine. My monitor is glowing.

Fascinating about Cuties (silly name, but they’re marketing to lunch-box-packing moms, I suppose). Re blood oranges, I’ll never forget seeing and tasting blood orange sangria at a neighbor’s house.

Speaking of neighbors, a rancher near me is growing what is arguably the sweetest, most delectable tangerines, the ‘Golden’ variety.

I already grow ‘Satsuma’ mandarins (as well as two kinds of limes, two kinds of lemons, a tangelo, grapefruit and several varieties of orange) but I’ve been thinking I must find a place for a ‘Golden’. And now reading your post, a tangor.

Incidentally, for the space-constrained, one solution is a “fruit cocktail” citrus tree, grafted to several varieties. There also are more and more dwarfs coming on the market.

But citrus isn’t something you have to grow in order to get good quality. It’s available at all farmer’s markets, especially here in CA, and that’s a great way to sample new varieties.

And did you know that eating citrus, whole or juiced, is a great way to bring your body’s pH into balance? It’s counterintuitive, but citric acid helps the body become more alkaline, counteracting the acidifying effects of the average American diet.

Thanks for the comments DL. When it comes to the ‘sweetest’ flavor there are so many variables, as you well know. But if one variety does well in your neighborhood then that’s a good reason not to experiment with some other. I love my ‘Pixie’ mandarin tangerine. – Saxon

Hoover Boo December 21, 2011, 8:50 pm

Very enjoyable post, thank you. I love our citrus trees, and would not be without them. To walk outdoors and be able to pick and eat a ripe orange or Mandarin is one of the greatest things about living in California. Makes up a little for the high costs, smog, crowds, traffic…

..earthquakes,drought, Hollywood … But let’s not be snobby, citrus grow in other states; and my favorite grapefruit come from Texas. – Saxon

Alex Rigg December 26, 2011, 12:00 am

Saxon,
Thanks for a great article and photographs. I’ll keep an eye out for the fruit you mentioned. Please thank Lance for keeping some Meyer lemon trees, and ask him to consider a citrus – related fruit – kumquat – my fav.

Hey Alex – Thanks for stopping by. Lance does grow kumquat too and the Meyers are mostly for special customers who know his quality. He can’t compete on price now that the big growers are bringing them to market. – Saxon

Organic Tomato Garden December 28, 2011, 7:56 am

Wow! This is indeed an eye opener! There’s so many citrus varieties to explore. Great Stuff!

— Almost as many as tomatoes — Saxon

Susan December 28, 2011, 12:58 pm

We have satsuma down here in southern Alabama and just got finished picking our crop for this year. If people just knew about the different types of citrus available beyond those offered in the stores, they would never buy another nearly tasteless navel orange again. We were given some Myer lemons for Christmas, talk about some delicious lemon pies. Folks grow kumquats around here also. Our one satsuma bush produced over 6 five gallon buckets worth of sweet fruits this year.

Don’t be too down on navels, homegrown and harvested when ripe will solve the problem of lots of tasteless food we buy in stores. Meyers lemons are not true lemons but have some satsuma breeding in them. But who cares ?! They are so distinctive and sweet. – Saxon

Galen January 3, 2012, 1:18 am

Living in the Northwest it is not easy to grow citrus but it can be done if you keep the plants in pots and bring them in for the winter.

It is really great to see that more specialty varieties of citrus are in the production pipeline as there is a definite need. There has recently been a resurgence of heirloom and other specialty apple varieties, many of which are now available at some of the more mainstream grocery stores up here.

Can’t wait to see some new citrus varieties in stores.

Galen – You are absolutely spot on in recognizing the current interest in heirlooms has spurred the citrus industry and it bodes well for finding new fruits, and for expanding garden zones. Some of the most interesting tidbits of information I picked up from my tour of Lindcove was hearing about heirloom citrus from other parts of the world (Brazil, Australia, Italy) that were being tested. – Saxon