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Little bursts of sweet delight, by the tree load

Special to The Times

Peg Rahn of Sierra Madre has a sweet arrangement with her neighbors: She cares for their 70-year-old ‘Dancy’ tangerine tree, and helps herself to the crop in return.

This year, with all the rain, Rahn says the tree is laden with fruit so sugary, it’s almost like candy. She eats the tangerines fresh, cooks and juices them, and makes little frozen kebabs with the glistening crescent-shaped segments.

“Kids love tangerines,” she says.

What’s not to love? Mandarins, a confusing group of citrus that includes ‘Satsumas,’ ‘Clementines’ (some of which are called tangerines) as well as tangors and tangelos, are some of nature’s primo foods: pretty, portable, delicious, nutritious and fun to eat. Ideal for car travel and lunch boxes.

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They’re also easy to grow in mild winter climates.

Mandarins have been cultivated since the 12th century BC in their native China and Southeast Asia. After decades of cult status among Japanese and European consumers, the little fruit with the big flavor is selling like iPods in the States under such comely trade names as Delite and Cuties.

To capture a growing market, California farmers are planting and harvesting more mandarins, according to California Department of Food and Agriculture statistics and Roger Smith, general manager of TreeSource Citrus Nursery in Exeter, Calif.

Farmers are growing different mandarins with various ripening times to achieve eight consecutive months of harvest, starting in October with ‘Satsumas’ and ‘Clementines,’ and ending in June with ‘Gold Nugget,’ a new pebbly skinned mandarin developed at UC Riverside.

Home gardeners can achieve similar results with three or four well-chosen trees, says garden writer and specialty citrus grower Lance Walheim. His book, “Citrus: Complete Guide to Selecting & Growing More Than 100 Varieties for California, Arizona, Texas, the Gulf Coast and Florida” (Ironwood Press, $17.95), details the varieties, including almost two dozen mandarins.

Walheim’s favorite is ‘Page.’ Although not the easiest to peel, the fruit is juicy and rich-flavored and it holds well on the tree.

“We started eating them in early December,” he says, “and we’re eating them still.”

‘Page’ can be seedless, a trait valued by consumers. All ‘Satsumas’ are seedless and extremely easy to peel, a process that Gary Matsuoka of Laguna Hills Nursery in Lake Forest calls “easier than cracking an egg.” However, ‘Clementines,’ including the dark-orange ones called tangerines, and many mandarin hybrids can be quite seedy.

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Newer varieties, Walheim says, are easy to peel, hang on the tree without deteriorating and are consistently seedless, even around other citrus.

The patented, trademarked mandarin hybrids called ‘Shasta Gold,’ ‘Tahoe Gold’ and ‘Yosemite Gold’ were released in 2002 from the UC Riverside Citrus Breeding Program. Tracy Kahn, director of the UC Riverside Citrus Variety Collection (www.citrusvariety.ucr.edu), described them as “big, flavorful and low-seeded, no matter where you plant them.”

Next up from Riverside: a seedless version of ‘W. Murcott Afourer’ (a popular commercial variety), to be released in 2006.

Home gardeners can find old and new varieties at garden centers, specialty nurseries or through the California Rare Fruit Growers (www.crfg.org), an organization of amateurs who often are the first to try new varieties out of UC Riverside.

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Mandarin trees vary in size and habit. Small-space gardeners should select ones grafted onto dwarf or semi-dwarf rootstocks. All tend to be alternate bearing, so don’t be alarmed if crop size varies from year to year.

Although all varieties are happiest inland, where heat fosters sweetness, some do well along the coast. ‘Satsumas’ can tolerate temperatures in the low 20s, a boon for gardeners in the foothills. Mandarins, like other citrus, require full sun, fast-draining soil and supplemental nutrients, at least when young.

The preferred approach for watering: deep but infrequent. The reward: handsome, long-lived trees and bountiful harvests of mouth-watering fruit.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Citrus care and feeding

Now is the best time to plant citrus. Keep new plants adequately watered, and lightly fertilize every couple of weeks, just as the nurseries do. Then slowly back off watering and fertilizing as the plants become established.

Mound soil into a circular basin to funnel water to the roots. Make this earthen dam about 4 inches tall with a diameter that is a little wider than the new root ball. Fill it twice each time you water.

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Mature citrus often need little or no fertilizer and infrequent irrigations.

Fallen leaves must remain on the ground as mulch.

-- Robert Smaus


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