December 20, 2016

Have Yourself a Very Mandarin Christmas

Mandarin oranges are a seasonal treat around the Holiday season but have you ever wondered why?
(I apologize if you had tried to read this post earlier in the week, somehow I accidentally deleted it. I had to rewrite it but this time, I kept it much shorter.).

Christmas time and Mandarin oranges - it's a pairing that started long before there branded varieties marketed under catchy brand names such as 'Cutie's' and 'Halo's', even before there were clementines. the truth is that these sweet, easy-to-peel citrus have a far more interesting story than simple being seedless tangerines.

Those stories from your grandparents about getting an orange in their Christmas stocking and being thrilled about has some truth to it. They weren't just telling tales. Of course, that lump of coal was something else.

Mandarin oranges have a long history in Asia where their juicy sweetness brightened up the winter months, but across North America and Europe, the Mandarin changed how cold-weather folk thought about winter fruit.

 It all began in the mid 1800's when ships arriving from Japan and the Philippines brought crates of imported Mandarins into the ports on the west coast of the US.These crates of sweet Mandarins then traveled via train to the big East coast cities.  So popular around Christmastime, that local papers from Toronto to New York City often announced their arrival with headlines like ''Japanese Oranges Arrive Just in Time For Christmas!'.

My father remembers as a four year old child in 1918 receiving sweet Mandarins in his Christmas stocking (his brothers once told me that he would hide them under his bed so that his other 7 brothers wouldn't find them).

Trains were often painted promoting the arrival of the Mandarins. This began in the 1920's but continued into the 1970's as seen here.

Today, we are seeing a resurgence of Mandarin appreciation, with the introduction of new varieties, marketed under catchy brand names like 'Cuties' and Halo's. The true Mandarin though is larger, and not unlike apples, encompass a whole group of named varieties which share the loose skin and easy-to-peel characteristics.

In Japan, the choicest varieties are known as the 'Satsuma' type. But understanding the various classes of Mandarins is a skill few of us really need to know or master, but why not try to explain the various differences? It's just what I like to do!

Here are the several classes of Mandarin Oranges:

Class I - Mandarin (One class is actually called - Mandarin)
This class includes the varieties named 'Changsa', 'Emperor', 'Oneco' and 'Willow-Leaf' or China Mandarin'.

Class II - Tangerines:
This class includes: 'Cleopatra' , Ponki', 'Spice', 'Dancy', 'Ponkan', 'Sunburst' (the Tangelo)

Class II - Satsuma Orange: Includes varieties of Satsuma such as 'Owari', Wase', Kara' and King Tangor. There are many hybrids as well.

Mandarin oranges in my greenhouse are just beginning to ripen. This variety is once that I purchases a few years ago from Logee's Greenhouses named 'Gold Nugget'. It is much larger than the catalog description, as it is not 5 feet tall, but it bears plenty of large, easy-to-peel fruit every winter. They rarely make it out of the greenhouse, though!

The very choice 'Satsuma' Mandarin has an easy-to-peel skin, is seedless and has a flavor unbeat in the citrus world. Their short season in December makes them something to look forward to around the holidays.

Old Christmas cards often featured festive greenery and oranges.

While researching for images and stories, I discovered this blog - InkwellInsirations by a Canadian writers group with a post  written by Anita Mae Draper entitled "What happened to Christmas Oranges?". The images are terrific, and the newspaper clippings are even better.

For me, the Mandarin orange is tops. Tangelos and honey tangelos are a top favorite in January, but he December Satsuma is king.  Nothing beats a good, sweet, juicy easy-to-peel Satsuma Mandarin - seedless, with flavor that could almost be artificial (but in a good way! Like the tangerine Life Savors), but in the end, I think that its the nostalgia and history that makes the Mandarin so appealing (sorry!).

A fresh, easy to peel sweet orange must have been a real treat at a time before there were motor cars or even sushi chefs at every supermarket. Certainly worthy of a cherished place within a Christmas stocking on Christmas eve. SO this year, celebrate the Mandarin and be thankful that they are still a festive Holiday treat, even 150 years later.

Cultural Note: If you do find some seeds in those Clementines, forget about trying to grow them into full-grown trees. They won't come true, and the resulting plants will just be thorny shrubs. I know some blogs are suggesting that you can raise your own from seed, but with citrus, that just is impossible unless it is a pure, wild species, and few if any of those are edible. But if you want to grow some citrus seeds with your kids, definitely do that - it's how I first started growing plants! By the time I reached college age, those grapefruit plants that I started in first grade where taller than I was - but still no blossoms or fruit. They did their job, though!

Happy Christmas everyone!


  1. Fascinating history. Thanks for the lesson.
    Loges says that gold nugget is only 1-3' tall; are yours that short?

    1. My 'Gold Nugget' is 5 feet tall. They are grafted of course, but I think they may grow larger than the catalog states.

  2. Anonymous5:10 PM

    dear matt
    logee's has supplied me with three of the five citrus varieties i am growing. so far, only the meyer lemon and long-time résident calamondin have provided fruit. i was excited to acquire a cara cara navel this fall and can hardly wait for it to fruit. i understand that if i dry my citrus off, almost to the point of wilting, they will then begin to flower when watering résumes. have you found that to be the case?
    merry christmas and best wishes for the newly renovated space.
    ~ 02568

    1. Most of my citrus are from Logee's (I only live 20 minutes away!), but I think that only my 'Meyer' lemons originated from somewhere else (the new dwarf selection from Monrovia Nurseries I believe). I do allow my citrus to dry off between watering a bit, but I think temperature and perhaps day-length triggers bloom. Indoors, it can be more challenging to keep them vernalized with artificial lights and constant temperatures. A good summer outdoors may do the trick. Now that I have the greenhouse, I miss having citrus indoors, but since space is getting scarce, maybe it's time that some migrate back in!

  3. My favorite orange growing up was the temple or tangor (C. reticulata × C. sinensis). Easy to peel, great flavor, and juicy, I still didn't quite "get it" when my father put it in my stocking. It has seeds but I think it's superior to the navel orange. Unfortunately, I never see temple oranges in California.

  4. Oh, I do love Temple oranges but my all time fav are the Tangelo's. Names are a funny thing, now that I think about it. Those know as 'Tangor' types of orange have names created by'Tan' for Tangerine, and 'Or' for Orange. 'Tangelo' probably they same clever naming company! Personally, I think Tangelo's have a better flavor than Temples, but their season is so short ( just a few weeks in January). Ugli are terrific as well, but expensive so it's hard to justify $3.00 for one fruit. Its worth nothing that the 'Ugli' fruit name is pronounced as 'Hooo-glee' and not 'Ugly' as many in the say. It's been marketed under the name 'Uniq Fruit'® but few call it that. It's Jamaican where Hooglee ('Ugli') is very popular.

    1. hopflower10:59 PM

      I am afraid that the tangerine part is right, but tangelos were named for being crossed also with pomelo, or grapefruit. I know this because I live in California where we grow many types of citrus, and also because I love all forms of citrus and am allergic to a lot of them. Especially grapefruit. I just cannot have them.

  5. Anonymous2:07 PM

    Cultural Note: I think that is only partially true. Many Citrus exhibit apomictic polyembryony. So if you plant one seed per pot, then in a few pots you will get more than one seedling develop. In those pots one of the seedlings will be genetically mixed and highly likely to ‘just be thorny shrubs’. The other seedling will be a genetic copy of the parent tree. It isn’t a high proportion of seeds that do it though, so you have to sow all you have and then watch hopefully for the double shoots.

    Of course you have to grow them both on to maturity to be sure have one that will fruit and they are not fast to flower from seed!


    1. I never knew that Chad, thanks for sharing the info. Always much to learn, but my patience and time lends itself to grafted plants. Now - to look-up apomictic polyembryony!

  6. I can almost smell them! They do conjure up Christmas almost instantly!
    Happy christmas!

    1. Thank you Jane. Merry Christmas!

  7. In "The Fruit Hunters" by Adam Gollner, he asked students at the UC Riverside Citus Variety Collection which was their favorite citrus in the collection. There are more than 1,000 varieties in this collection. The student pick was the Kishu mandarin. They are small, seedless, with excellent flavor. I've found that they don't have as much pith as other citrus.


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