Fruits, like stocks and clothes, are ruled by the inscrutable laws of fashion. There’s no good reason why mandarin oranges--irresistibly sweet, fragrant and flavorful fruits that dominate citrus production in much of Asia and the Mediterranean basin--should account for only 2% of California’s citrus acreage.
After a century in the shadow of navels and Valencias, however, mandarins are suddenly a hot topic for California growers. With one eye on a surge in imported Spanish mandarins called clementines, these farmers are searching to stay competitive by planting the latest large-fruited, easy-peeling, seedless varieties.
A few daring agribusinessmen are swinging for the fences by putting in huge new groves, while smaller growers are rediscovering long-neglected but exquisite older types. It’s a new world of experimentation and risk for farmers, and diversity for citrus lovers.
Mandarins are generally smaller and flatter than oranges, with looser rinds and segments and a distinctive spicy aroma. Indigenous to China and northeastern India, they are one of three original species of citrus, along with pummelos and citrons. All other citrus fruits arose from these three as hybrids and mutations; oranges, for example, are crosses between mandarins and pummelos.
Mandarins grow wild in China and have been cultivated there for thousands of years, but they came late to Western citrus culture, reaching Europe in 1805, Florida about 1825 and California by the 1870s.
Some of the first varieties, notably the red-orange Dancy, supposedly came from Tangier in Morocco, so they were nicknamed tangerines. In the United States “mandarin” and “tangerine” now are used more or less interchangeably, but “tangerine” typically refers to flat, deep-colored varieties like the Dancy.
Due to its humid climate, Florida produces large, juicy fruits. It grows some 26,000 acres, but its two main varieties, Fallglo and Sunburst, are bred for appearance and shipping, not eating quality. California’s mandarins, grown on just 5,400 acres, have more intense flavor.
Satsumas, currently the state’s leading type, have experienced several booms and busts since their introduction from Japan in the late 1870s. First in season, seedless, easy to peel and cold-hardy, they were widely planted in Southern California in the 1880s, in the Sacramento Valley in the early 1900s and in the San Joaquin Valley in the 1950s and 1960s. Each time, either supply exceeded the limited demand or the fruits proved too fragile to pack and ship profitably, and growers removed the trees.
During the last decade, increased interest in specialty citrus has spurred a revival of satsuma cultivation, mostly in the San Joaquin Valley. The best satsumas, however, come from two dozen farms further north, in Placer County and the Sacramento Valley.
Gold Country Strike
In Orland, 100 miles north of Sacramento, Rich Johansen grows 28 acres of organic Owari satsumas. On a freezing morning in mid-November, he ambled through long rows of tall trees gleaming with golden fruit and explained why satsumas flourish in his area.
“The climate up here really puts the fruit through its paces,” he said. “Summer days are longer, and satsumas respond to the extended sunlight by growing bigger and sweeter. In the fall, rain and cold kick the acid up. The end result is a complex flavor with a good balance of sweetness and tang.”
In a younger section of the grove, half the crop--large, bumpy fruits--lay on the ground. Young trees bear coarse fruit with a “pebbly” rind and blander flavor, says Johansen, so he culls the roughest ones before harvest. It takes 10 years or more, he says, for a mandarin tree to produce its best fruit.
When his father planted satsumas in 1960, hardly anyone knew what they were, and the family lost money on them for many years. But Johansen persevered, traveling door-to-door to hand out free samples. Children loved the seedless, sweet-tart fruit, and their parents started buying. Now giant trucks from national chains pull up to his packing shed, and he can’t harvest enough fruit to satisfy the buyers.
Many commercial satsuma growers are less careful than Johansen about quality. Chasing early season high prices, in late September and October, they pick the fruit green, when it’s barely legal by state maturity standards, gas it with ethylene and “sweat” it in hot, humid rooms. This brings out orange color in the rind but sometimes off flavors in the flesh.
While satsumas represent the old order, in a few years California’s biggest mandarin crop may be clementines. They’re not all that new: Father Clement Rodier supposedly discovered his namesake fruit in the garden of an orphanage near Oran, Algeria, around 1900. This “Algerian” mandarin arrived in California in 1914, and from the 1940s to the mid-1960s as many as 1,400 acres of them were grown in the Coachella Valley.
Clementines, however, are most particular in their climatic requirements, and under desert conditions the Algerian variety was small and seedy and tended to dry out on the tree. Old-timers still joke about tying tarps on their trucks to keep the clementines from blowing away. Plantings of Fairchild mandarin, a larger, better-adapted hybrid introduced in 1964, replaced clementines in the desert.
Meanwhile, Spanish and North African growers discovered larger, predominantly seedless varieties of clementine. They had one serious problem: In order to set seedless fruit, clementines need to be grown away from other citrus trees with active pollen; without cross-pollination, however, they bore erratic crops.
UC Riverside scientists discovered a solution in the early 1960s. By applying gibberellic acid, a naturally occurring growth regulator, at bloom, they tricked the trees into bearing regularly. However, undesirable effects--leaf drop and twig dieback--caused California growers to lose interest.
Spanish scientists observed this procedure in California and then refined it to make it effective. In the 1980s and 1990s, high-quality Spanish and Moroccan clementines took markets in Europe and the eastern United States by storm. California growers dozed.
Numbers tell the story: Spain now has 242,000 acres of mandarins--almost equal to California’s total citrus plantings. Last season America imported 78,000 metric tons of Spanish clementines, up 430% in four years. After a freeze in 1998 reduced the California harvest, five-pound boxes of Spanish clementines poured into markets in the West.
At last, California farmers awoke to the threat. Last month a major navel grower, Berne Evans of Los Angeles-based Sun Pacific, recalled his shock.
“I felt like an idiot,” he said, driving his black Mercedes sedan through dense tule fog at the southern end of the Central Valley. “Was there some reason clementines hadn’t been grown commercially in the San Joaquin Valley? Maybe it was too hot, or the fog? All the experts said they should grow here, but they weren’t the ones putting up the money.”
Evans hired legions of consultants and sent his oldest son, Barney, to observe the European and South African clementine industries. When he returned, he said, “Dad, put my inheritance in clementines.”
In the spring of 1998, Evans planted 1,090 acres of Nules, the standard Spanish variety, in a warm, early-bearing location isolated from other citrus groves.
Clementines are notoriously finicky, however. Robert Bennett, a nearby grower with whom Evans joined forces, planted 160 acres of Fina Sodea clementines in 1994, but didn’t get a crop in 1998 and 1999.
“We had our butts hanging out there,” said Evans.
This season, finally, the partners’ experiments yielded a bumper crop of Fina Sodeas; most important for Evans, a small planting of Nules bore heavily too.
His own Nules grove near the Maricopa Highway should bear its first crop next year. Standing on the berm of the California aqueduct, he surveyed endless rows of 5-foot trees, as a few oil wells pumped away in the distance. By next year Evans and his partners will have more than 2,600 acres of clementines. Including the costs of a new packing facility, he said, Sun Pacific will have invested more than $25 million in clementines.
“How do you like that for a gamble!” he said. “We’ll be the No. 1 clementine producer in the world. We’ll get to market at the same time as Spain, but with riper fruit. I just hope we’re right, and we can sell them for a profit.”
Evans is hoping to market his crop through supermarket chains, but some of the most innovative mandarin growers are defiantly noncommercial.
Some fall in love with an obscure variety at UC Riverside’s Citrus Variety Collection, which serves as a repository of genetic diversity. Curator Tracy Kahn and her assistant, Ottillia Bier, can sample any of the 100-odd mandarins in their care, but their favorite, in season, is the Seedless Kishu. It’s tiny, not much bigger than a walnut, but it peels very easily and it’s addictively sweet and fragrant. Children go wild for the fruits, says Bier, who calls them “citrus candy.” Before satsumas became popular in Japan, around 1875, the Kishu, also known as Kinokuni, was the favorite citrus fruit.
Most commercial farmers wouldn’t even consider the Kishu, because of the high cost of harvest. But when Jim Churchill of Ojai, who sells at his local farmers market, tasted them on a tour of the collection three years ago, he decided he had to have them, and planted 50 trees.
“I grow what I love,” he said, a few weeks ago, as he sampled the first crop on his young trees. “If it tastes good, I can sell it. Next week I’ll ship some clusters to Chez Panisse.”
Jerry Dimitman, a crusty retired professor from Cal Poly Pomona, also has a passion for intriguing but neglected citrus. On a hillside in De Luz, a pristine agricultural area north of Fallbrook, he grows the Ponkan, the most famous of all Asian mandarins, and the Swatao, a variant with even richer flavor.
The Ponkan is extraordinarily large and sweet but ships poorly because of its very loose peel. It also prefers a hot, humid climate like that of southern China, or Florida, where it’s popular as a dooryard tree. In California, only Dimitman sells Ponkans, and he has just 25 trees.
Early Abbot Kinney
That wasn’t always the case. In the 1890s, before he became famous as the developer of Venice, Abbot Kinney grew Ponkans, which he called Kinneloas, on his Kinneloa Ranch in Altadena. Today, most of the canned “mandarin oranges” from China are Ponkans.
For the next few weeks, Dimitman will be selling Ponkans--with stems and leaves attached, as Asian customers prefer--at the Alhambra farmers market. Customers arrive before the opening and form lines to buy his limited supply. Often, they’ll hold up a fruit and ask Dimitman a one-word question: “Sweet?” One bite convinces them that it’s the real thing.
A few miles from Dimitman’s property, in a wild, gorgeous canyon along the Santa Margarita River, an American Airlines pilot named Norm Jones grows 24 acres of a mysterious late-season hybrid called Temecula Sweet. It has garnered increasing attention and sales in recent years, but until lately, scarcely anyone--including Jones--knew its true identity.
On a broiling afternoon last August, Jones showed Dimitman his private paradise. Across the river, eagles soared over a hillside overgrown with manzanita and sumac, where, says Jones, mountain lions prowl.
It was the end of the Temecula Sweet’s season, so when Jones picked and shared one, it was puffy and low in acidity--but still amazingly sweet and flavorful.
Dimitman rubbed the rind. “It’s exceptional for so late in the season,” he said. “It seems to have Ponkan in it.” But what else, he wondered?
One man knew: C.T. Lin, a Taiwan-born architect and developer, Jones’ partner and his neighbor in Dana Point. Later that afternoon, at a restaurant in that city, he divulged the details.
In the 1970s he owned a large greenhouse in Montana, where he tried growing Ponkans from seed. The fruit wasn’t that great, but he crossed it with satsuma and, out of 80 seedlings, selected one magnificent specimen. Lin later planted it on a property he bought in Temecula, and called it “Temecula Sweet.”
Over the next season, starting in March, Lin and Jones hope to harvest more than 200,000 pounds of the fruit. “I’d like to think this is my gift to American children,” says Lin.
Like these mavericks, several larger growers in the San Joaquin Valley have decided there’s good money and less competition in late-season varieties.
Most notably, Tom Mulholland has 80 acres of a mandarin that ripens from March to May and is attractive, easy to peel and seedless when isolated from pollinators. He sells it under the trade name “Delite,” but the variety’s proper, though less catchy, name is W. Murcott Afourer, because it originated as a seedling in the Moroccan town of Afourer--supposedly as a hybrid or mutation of Murcott, a Florida tangor (tangerine-orange cross).
The discoverer sent it to the Citrus Variety Collection in Riverside on the assurance that it would not be released, but it proved so promising that it nevertheless sneaked its way into distribution.
Such intrigue runs in Mulholland’s blood. On the shelf behind his desk sits the copy of “Mechanical Engineers Handbook” that belonged to his legendary great-grandfather, William, who brought water to Los Angeles from the Owens Valley. The family bought land cheaply in Northridge, as loosely recounted in the movie “Chinatown,” and grew citrus there until 1955, when his father moved to Orange Cove.
Most amusingly, the label for his “Mulholland Drive” brand depicts a fantasy of a tiny, compact Los Angeles surrounded by lush citrus groves, viewed from a winding Mulholland Drive.
Soon, California growers may not need foreign varieties to stay on the cutting edge. After many years of little interest and low funding, mandarin breeding in California is enjoying a renaissance.
Mikeal Roose, the citrus breeder at UC Riverside, heads a team working to develop high-quality mandarins available almost all year. “When I started in the 1980s, I was told that the industry wasn’t interested in new varieties, because they wanted to grow navel oranges,” he says. “I kept telling growers that people would want to eat seedless easy-peelers.”
It takes many years, often decades, to breed, select and test new varieties. Roose’s first introduction, Gold Nugget, came from a cross made in the 1950s, though it was just released in August 1999. It’s seedless and late-bearing and has a rich, sweet flavor, but it hasn’t caught on yet with growers, who fear that it has an unattractively rough, oily rind and bears heavily only in alternate years.
Many growers are eagerly awaiting the release of Roose’s next releases, expected by June: complex hybrids that derive deep red color from Temple, classic flavor and rind color from Dancy and late season from Encore.
“They have great color, fabulous flavor, and they’re seedless, easy to peel, big and juicy,” says Churchill, who has tasted the four “TDEs” from a neighbor’s test plantings. “They’re pretty close to the Holy Grail.”