December 19, 2010



As we enter the Holiday season, and the winter solstice, the rare fruits of winter arrive in the markets that were common winter fruits in Asia. Persimmons. Pomegranates and citrus of all types remind us that indeed, there is another world beyond ours. In my greenhouse, I am reminded daily of what people grow and eat in China and the Southern Hemisphere,  for under the protection of cold glass,  many types of Pomegranates and small citrus ripen.  Green Pomegranates from Iran, Persimmon trees bear fruit and citrons and Lemons bear fruit for candy and tea.
Mixed citrus in the December greenhouse.

 Meyer Lemons, growing in a large terra cotta pot are the tastiest winter harvest fruit we have. 

One of my favorite harvests in the winter months are Meyer Lemons, which blossoms for me in July, but bear fruit for the entire winter, starting in November. My trees are still small, but even at their small stature, I can get around 60 fragrant lemons, enough for tea and for my favorite use – in a spritzer made with mineral water and pomegranate juice (and sometimes a dash of Pims, Campari.
 Indian or Hong Kong Kumquats or Fortunella hindsii, are the tiniest citrus fruit one can grow. They are nearly the size of a pea and contain up to three full sized seeds.

But by far, my favorite citrus  to grow are the Kumquat’s (Fortunella sp.), because they do very well in the cold greenhouse conditions I have. I live near Logee’s Greenhouses whichis 20 minutes away from us in Connecticut, where they have a large, ancient tree that is loaded with fruit every winter (as well as Fuyu Persimmons!).

First, the name. People may giggle when one say’s Kumquat, but the English name is derived from the Cantonese pronounciation which sounds very much like gam gwat ( meaning golden orange). In Mandarin, a similar sounding name translates literally as large tangerine orange.  For many people and cultures, Kumquats are not unusual at all. This Holiday season pick some up, not for decoration, but to eat. Later, I’ll tell you how.

You may think that it would be easy to obtain a Kumquat plant, since the fruit is so seedy, one can easilly assume that all one must do is to plant a seed.Yes,  it is fun to grow citrus from seed, it reminds many of us of childhood experiments with grapefruits and oranges, but your results will be handicapped since most citrus will grow fine foliage plants from seed, few will ever bloom or bear fruit. Even if a kumquat grown from seed blossoms, the genus is challenging to grow well since seed grown plants frequently have problems forming decent root growth, they are grafted onto more root-aggressive species. The truth is that most citrus that are seed grown are at least 15 years away from opening their first blossom, so if you are interested in purchasing a kumquat that will bear fruit, it must be grafted. Grafted plants ensure that you will get loads of blossoms on a small plant, and, it ensures that you will get a proper named variety.

Since most commercial Kumquat’s are grafted onto the rootstock of Poncirus trifoliata, I was surprised to read that in China, some growers graft named varieties onto the species I have, F. hindsii, so maybe I can grow some from seed. That said,  I have to assume it too is best grafted,  since the Logee’s plant I have has clearly been grafted, and logic dictates that a cutting from a blooming sized tree that has been grafted, will guarantee flowers and fruit at a small size. 

I love the flavor of Kumquat’s, which are best eaten by popping an entire fruit, skin, seeds and all, into your mouth for an exciting sour and sweet experience. Something I never fully appreciated until one January while visiting California, Joe Nuccio took me out back to a fruit laden Kumquat tree at their Camellia nursery in Pasadena, and handed me some fruit straight from the tree, warm from the winter sun, I popped the fruit into my mouth and was blown away by the flavor of the skin, which tasted like orange blossom oil, while being both tangy and sweet with just enough bitterness. I have tasted nothing like it since.

Our supermarkets near Boston carry baskets of hybrid Kumquats around the Holidays, but few people buy them for anything other than decoration, but I urge you to try the simple Kumquat as an edible fruit. Let them come to room temperature, and try biting into it. It is exciting, since it is natural to feel odd about biting into a whole citrus…it doesn’t come close to my California experience, but if the fruit is fresh, it can come close.

The blossoms on Kumquats appear in summer, and are as fragrant as orange blossoms. Just watch out for the thorns when leaning in for a sniff.

Kumquats are native to China, and they were introduced to the west in 1846 by British plant explorer Robert Fortune. Included in the genus Citrus until 1915 when plant taxonomists reclassified them into their own genus Fortunella (after Robert Fortune).  In the US, Florida citrus growers started growing Kumquats in the lat 1800’s when the Nagami or Oval Kumquat was introduced from Japan, where the fruit was popular. There are five species of Fortunella (Fortunella hindsii, The Marumi Kumquat (Fortunella japonica), The Nagami Kumquat (Fortunella margarita) and the Meiwa Kumquat (Fortunella crassifolia.), the Malayan Kumquat (Fortunella polyandra), and the Jiangsu Kumquat (Fortunella obovata). Some sources like Fortunella as being synonymous with Citrus sp.

Fortunella hindsii mature in early winter, and fruit will remain on the plant until the following summer if not picked.

Three citrus species that I picked in the greenhouse today. A Myers Lemon, a medium sized Calamondin Orange and a tiny Fortunella hindsii Kumquat.

There are many crosses between Citrus and Fortunella, often seen as Citrus x Fortunella, and these include Limequat and the Calamondin Orange.

If you live in the north, Kumquats can be grown in large pots indoors, if you have a sunny window and a cool room. In cold greenhouse, they do best and will bear fruit all winter long as long as pollinators can reach them (our F. hindsii is loaded with fruit this year, as you can see, since our honey bees were able to reach them during their summer blossoming period outdoors).
 A Fortunella hindsii outside in my garden in July. I trained it into a topiary standard, which is not a typical form for this small fruiting tree, but the species takes to pruning well and is very popular as a bonsai subject.

I adore the smaller growing Fortunella hindsii as a potted tree, since it is very attractive year round. It bears loads of tiny fruit that entertain children and curious people who visit my greenhouse (look…little doll house oranges!), since the fruit is nearly 3/8 of and inch in diameter. Beware of it’s thorns, which can tear clothing, this plant can be trained as interesting bonsai or as a standard, and I did. This species grows wild near Hong Kong, and is commonly known as the Hong Kong Kumquat.

I know, the strange bitter fruits of Kumquats seem pretty useless to those who are less than adventurous, opting for sweeter, easier flavors of Clementine and Navel Oranges, but don’t dismiss the Kumquat, it can grow on you. My sister in-law Penny who is rather non-adventurous when it comes to new foods, fell in love with Kumquats at out home a few years ago, and she brings fruit Salad every Christmas to our home, with a basket of Kumquats on the side, so that she can have extra to eat, herself.

The Kumquat growers website has many interesting recipes for everything from Kumquat hot sauce, to Kumquat Banana wine, and I know of a Vodka flavored with F. hindsii. The fruit of this species is hardly anything more than skin, and three green seeds, but surely, it has flavor worth playing with.

I picked some fruit today from my Fortunella hindsii to see if the seeds will sprout, just in case the greenhouse freezes again (we ran out of gas again, yesterday, but the temperature dropped down to 28 deg. F).

Many cultures worldwide use the Fortunella in their cuisine. In Manila, the Kalamansi (which is technically referred confusingly as Citrofortunella mitis, it is the same as those small, mini orange trees sold as houseplants we call Calamondin Orange). This is a cross between Citrus reticulata and Fortunella, hence, Citrofortunella. It is an essential ingredient in Philippine cooking. Said to taste like a cross between a lemon and an orange, in Manila, these are picked green and sold as Kalamansi ‘Limes’.

In China, the tiny Fortunella hindsii has been used as a homeopathic medicine for Hernia healing, and there are two formula’s available today at Chinese herbalists. The fruit of F. hindsii is commonly known in China as Shanju, and various recipes and formulas have been passed down in China where peppercorns, anise, mango seed and goner are combined with F. hindsii.

In other parts of China, the Cantonese have used F. hindsii as a more practical cure for sore throats, where it has been brined as a winter fruit. Culturally, it has been used for centuries as a both a medicine and in cuisine added to dishes. As a curative, it is often mixed with salt and sugar, placed into a stoneware jar and then buried in the ground for a few months like Kimchi pots, to ferment. The fruit shrinks and turns brown, and then the liquid is extracted and used as a remedy for sore throats, being added to hot water. Many older homes in China will have this mixture in the winter. Recently, are more common recipe involved adding kumquats and sugar to pure spirits like Vodka, to flavor the liquor, not unlike Lemoncello.


  1. Interesting post. Candied Kumquats are also wonderful to eat.

  2. Beautiful post-- I linked to it in my blog.

  3. How come when I use the seed from a kumquat tree that I bought from nursey, when it grew up, there are a lot of spikey thorns. I remember the kumquat tree that I bought from nursery does not have a single thorns at all. I tried 2 times. Both also got thorns. Any advice ? Thank you

  4. I bought a kumquat tree from nursery. It was without thorn. But when I plant from the seed of this tree, the tree grew up with spiky thorn ? How come ? Puzzling ? Thank you

  5. Anonymous7:05 AM

    Cumquats do not grow true from seeds, esp Nagami cumquats. Therefore the cumquats grown from seeds will have sizeable thorns, unlike the grafted ones, which are thornless. Better off trying to strike cuttings from the grafted cumquats instead.

  6. Anonymous1:05 PM

    My sister has what appears to be a Nagami tree and the fruit is a nice blend of tart and sweet. It seems our stores only sell the Nagami variety so I've never been able to compare it any other variety. I wanted to purchase a tree but I want the sweetest variety I can get and I read online that Meiwa is the sweetest variety. What is your opinion? Is the Meiwa sweeter than the Nagami?

  7. Anonymous1:06 PM

    My sister has what appears to be a Nagami tree and the fruit is a nice blend of tart and sweet. It seems our stores only sell the Nagami variety so I've never been able to compare it any other variety. I wanted to purchase a tree but I want the sweetest variety I can get and I read online that Meiwa is the sweetest variety. What is your opinion? Is the Meiwa sweeter than the Nagami?


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