The convergence of culinary and garden enthusiasms has paid many dividends this past decade. Not long ago, if you wanted arugula in your salad, you had to grow it yourself. Now most markets offer it, and some even offer a prepackaged mesclun mix. It's a similar story with citrus. Once it was just grapefruits, lemons, limes, Mandarins and oranges. There is so much more to choose from now.
These days, adventurous gardeners can find an amazing array of unusual citrus: tangelos (Mandarin-pummelo or Mandarin-grapefruit hybrids), tangors (Mandarin-orange hybrids), limequats (lime-kumquat hybrids), red-fleshed sweet oranges ("blood" oranges) and even the bizarre-looking but ultra-aromatic Kieffir lime.
But for me, the best citrus are the ones that taste best. The following 10 are my favorites. Most are available to markets: Ask your local produce manager about ordering them. Home gardeners who live in citrus-growing regions can plant trees in their own gardens. If you don't live where citrus grows outdoors, you can raise plants in containers in greenhouses or solariums.
When I was a kid, oranges were either navels for fresh eating or Valencias for juice. While this is still mostly true, now there's a variety choice. Among oranges, variety has mostly to do with color: Oranges aren't only orange these days. All sweet oranges are hardy to about 27? F.
'Cara Cara' pink navel. 'Cara Cara' is a natural variant ("limb sport") of a Washington navel that appeared in Venezuela. It made its way to Florida by 1977 (where it's marketed as 'Red Navel') and to California 10 years later. I've tasted the fruits and I rate the flavor "excellent." But most exciting is the color. The interior flesh is pink, similar to a 'Star Ruby' grapefruit. Because of the type of mutation it is, some variation in fruits and tree growth is expected. It will be a couple years at least until fruits or trees are widely available.
Fruits are medium-size, deep orange on the outside with a small navel on the blossom end. Flesh is reddish pink and seedless. Fruits ripen November to March in inland California and November to February in Florida.
Blood oranges are old varieties of oranges that until recently were virtually unknown in the U.S., despite our huge citrus industries. The red color of the flesh and juice is the most obvious difference, but there's something more to the flavor as well. Americans traveling in France, Italy or Spain would relish a glass of blood orange juice, sometimes believing it a mixture of regular orange juice with raspberry and other fruit juices.
'Moro' blood orange. The most predictable and colorful of all the blood oranges, 'Moro' is the most popular commercial and home garden variety. Once mature, the exterior shows a bright red blush, and the internal color is deep red. The juice is equally dark.
The fruits are medium-size, easy-to-peel and usually seedless. The tree is vigorous but has a tendency to bear heavy crops in alternate years. Fruits ripen December to March in inland California, Texas and the Gulf Coast; February to May in coastal southern California; November to February in the low-elevation desert; and February to May in northern coastal California.
'Sanguinelli' blood orange. This is a late-ripening blood orange from Spain. The flesh is usually a shade lighter than 'Moro', but skin color is often a stunning cherry red.
Fruits are small- to medium-size and almost egg-shaped. The rind is very smooth but is harder to peel than other blood oranges. Fruits usually contain a few seeds. They ripen March to May in inland California; February to April in Texas, low-elevation deserts, the Gulf Coast and Florida; and April to June in coastal California (both north and south).
'Tarocco' blood orange. These fruits are the largest of all the blood oranges. They ripen after 'Moro' but before 'Sanguinelli'. 'Tarocco' is also generally considered the best-flavored of the three.
Fruits are large and the orange-blushed-with-red rind is smooth, thin and easy to peel. Internal color varies: Sometimes it is plain orange; at other times it is very deep red. Most fruits produce a few seeds. 'Tarocco' is well adapted only to California climates; it is not grown in Texas, the Gulf Coast or Florida. It ripens March to May in coastal California (north and south) and January to March in inland California.
In simpler days, there were tangerines. Now there are Mandarins, of which there are four main types: the Satsumas of Japan (Citrus unshiu), the Mediterranean mandarins of Europe (C. deliciosa), the King Mandarins of Asia (C. nobilis) and the "common" Mandarins (C. reticulata). Of all, the Satsumas and the common types are most grown in the U.S. The former are particularly cold-hardy (to 24° F), so appreciated in more marginal citrus-growing regions. The common kinds include the popular Clementines. "Tangerine," it turns out, was a marketing term that has no bearing on actual varieties but is applied to many Mandarins and Mandarin hybrids.
Most Mandarins and especially the Satsumas are easy to peel. Satsumas are also usually seedless, while Clementines will produce seeds if a pollinizer is nearby. Mandarins are hardy to at least 26°F.
'Ambersweet'. This is one of the new citrus of mixed genetics that confounds straightforward categorization. A cross of 'Clementine' with 'Orlando' tangelo, you might see it marketed as either an orange or a Mandarin. The flesh tastes like a particularly juicy orange with a hint or more of Mandarin. Not yet widely available, it is particularly popular in Florida.
Fruits are medium-size and distinctly tapered toward the neck. They're easy to peel and seedless without cross-pollination, seedy with it. Fruits ripen November to December in inland California; late October to January in Florida.
Perhaps the best-known Mandarin by name, Clementines have been popular for years, especially in the eastern U.S. Their arrival in the markets in winter is cause for celebration.
For gardeners (and Mandarin connoisseurs), the story is not so simple. Clementines are a group of Mandarins. Most Clementines that reach the U.S. are grown in Mediterranean Europe and are seedless varieties. New seedless varieties of Clementine Mandarins from Europe are being tested in California, so I expect they will soon be as popular in the West as they are in the East.
Clementines are all small to medium-size, very juicy, very sweet fruits. Typical ripening in coastal California (north and south) is January to mid-April; in inland California and Texas, it's November to January; and in low-elevation deserts it's November and December.
'Page'. It was a lot of back-and-forth breeding that produced the 'Page' Mandarin. A hybrid of 'Minneola' tangelo (itself a hybrid) and Clementine Mandarin, 'Page' retains distinctive Mandarin flavor such that many aficionados consider it the finest flavored of all.
Fruits are small to medium-size, orange-red and distinguished by a prominent rind circle on the blossom end. The fruits will be seedless unless an appropriate pollinizer is nearby. Easy-to-peel and excellent for juice, they ripen February to May in coastal southern and northern California; December to February in inland California and Texas; November and December in low-elevation deserts; January to March in the Gulf Coast; and November to January in Florida.
'Sunburst'. 'Sunburst' is a USDA (Florida) hybrid first released in 1979. It is very attractive with brightly colored thin skin, and the flavor is rich. The fruits are more difficult to peel than most and will be seedless without a pollinizer. This variety shows great promise for California but has not been widely tested. Neither the fruits nor the trees are widely available.
In Florida, fruits ripen November and December. This variety hasn't been grown long enough in other regions to have well-known ripening times.
Pummelos are the largest of all citrus fruits. Some swell to 8 inches in diameter and a several-pound heft. They are far more popular in Asia than in the U.S., partly, I think, because fruit quality has been too variable, and even at their best (such as the 'Chandler'), pummelos are more work than other citrus to peel and eat. But the following two pummelo hybrids have addressed these problems. Now it's only a matter of time before commercial production is sufficient and the consuming market aware.
'Melogold' and 'Oroblanco' are grapefruit-pummelo hybrids developed from original crosses made at the University of California at Riverside. Both are sweet, seedless fruits borne by large, vigorous trees. Perhaps most significantly for gardeners, they require much less heat to sweeten than a grapefruit. Both pummelo hybrids are hardy to about 27° F.
'Melogold'. Slightly larger and heavier than its sister 'Oroblanco', 'Melogold' expresses more of its pummelo than grapefruit heritage. It also ripens slightly later and is somewhat less sweet.
Fruits are large, up to several pounds and more than 6 inches in diameter. Exterior is smooth, yellow-green and easy to peel. Eat it with a spoon, like a grapefruit, separating rind and membranes from individual segments. Fruits ripen February to April in coastal California (south and north); December and January in inland California and low-elevation deserts.
'Oroblanco'. In my opinion the superior of the two, 'Oroblanco' offers perfectly sweet, melting, juicy flesh without a hint of grapefruitlike bitterness. As with 'Melogold', it's eaten with a spoon, separating the sections. The citrus "Sweetie" is a marketing name used for Israel-grown 'Oroblanco', just as "Oroblanco Goldfruit" is a name used for some California-grown fruits.
The fruit has a thick, greenish yellow rind. The flesh is straw-colored and usually seedless. 'Oroblanco' ripens January to March in coastal California (north and south); November and December in inland California and low-elevation deserts.
Where to Grow Citrus
Most citrus are native to tropical or semitropical climates. In most cases, both fruit and foliage are damaged if temperatures fall much below freezing for a prolonged period. With few exceptions, citrus grow outdoors in a relatively narrow region that extends from northern California, south into southern California, eastward through the low-elevation deserts of Arizona, into southern Texas, along the Gulf Coast and south through Florida. The exact breadth of this "citrus zone" is delineated by how cold it gets in winter.
However, you can grow citrus in containers anywhere. By planting in containers and growing trees outdoors in summer, you can grow citrus trees in any climate. You won't get the same crops that trees in outdoor soil produce, but you'll harvest some fruit and enjoy the flowers. Any of the varieties I've mentioned above will grow and fruit in containers.
The classic citrus container of European orangeries (frost-free sunrooms for citrus) is a 24-inch-square wooden box, usually ornamental and painted white. Any container of approximately 15-gallon size, such as a half wine or whiskey barrel, works fine. Never fill your container with soil from the garden. Use a premixed potting soil, usually composed of sand, peat moss, fine bark, perlite or vermiculite. I recommend adding a slow-release fertilizer and a water-holding polymer.
Provide the right conditions indoors. Place trees in a cool, bright location and maintain high humidity around them. A cool greenhouse where temperatures stay above freezing is ideal. Don't overwater your trees. Allow the soil surface to dry partially between wateri and use a liquid or soluble fertilizer at label strength and frequency. If trees bloom indoors, hand-pollinate flowers by daubing them with an artist's paintbrush.
Allow for slow, gradual transitions between indoors and outdoors of at least three or four weeks. Before bringing a citrus tree indoors, gradually move it to where it receives less and less direct sunlight. Just before moving the plant indoors, hose it off to clean the leaves. Keep a watchful eye out for insect pests such a aphids, mealybugs and spider mites. If any of these appear, spray the leaves with an insecticidal soap.
Shipping citrus trees to the citrus states or regions -- Arizona, California, Florida and Texas -- is restricted. If you live in one of these regions, buy trees locally.