What’s new in citrus varieties?

Photos courtesy of Frieda’s, Inc., Unless Otherwise Noted.
The large mandarin group has many qualities valued by consumers, including seedlessness, small size, sweetness and skin that separates easily.

Citrus varieties are strange creatures. Sometimes they stay hidden for decades and then lurch into the public consciousness. Sometimes they rocket into view and become a fixture in the marketplace in the twinkling of an eye. However, there’s no mystery why they find acceptance with a modern consumer: they are tasty, offer a splash of color, are easy to peel and are seedless.

Tracy Kahn explains this with a mild sense of wonderment herself. Kahn is a principal museum scientist and curator of the Citrus Variety Collection (CVC) at the University of California-Riverside. With a Ph.D. in botany and a specialty in citrus, and a finger on the pulse of the marketplace, she says the California citrus grower is responding with new plantings based on those consumers’ tastes. There are a bewildering number of citrus varieties available in the world—the CVC boasts two trees each in 1,010 different types, and approximately 760 of them are in the genus Citrus—but much of it comes down to palatability.

“Varieties come in and sit around for a while until somebody says let’s start growing them,” Kahn says. There are several factors that can trigger plantings, but they all are based on various consumer preferences. As a result, there is a major turning point now in the California citrus industry. That industry is known for its changeable nature, but this change is definitely following the market.

There are many minor citrus varieties grown in small acreages and sold in limited markets, but Kahn picks three new or newish varieties that illustrate how major acreage is being planted now on farms large and small. The first is the Cara Cara navel orange.

The Cara Cara is a midseason navel orange variety, and part of its popularity, Kahn notes, is that it is a navel. Navels have ruled the U.S. orange market for decades because of their sweetness, easy peeling characteristics and other factors. The Cara Cara is a budsport, or mutation, that comes from Venezuela, and it is popular for one primary reason.

The Cara Cara has about the same sweetness as most other navels, and doesn’t extend the season one way or another, Kahn says, but it has vivid pink flesh. That has proven striking to consumers, but another thing that has made it popular is that the pinkness is a result of lycopene, an unsaturated carotenoid antioxidant that has been linked to prevention of heart disease and various forms of cancer. Found also in tomatoes and red grapefruit, lycopene is a big advertisement for Cara Cara navels.

Kahn says it is just this type of feature that propels certain varieties forward in the citrus marketplace. It arrived in California in 1988 and was tested in the Citrus Clonal Protection Program. The CVC began evaluations in the late ’90s for qualities such as size, rind thickness, seediness, color and food components.

Jeff Steen says the Cara Cara has been an eye-opener to Golden Valley Citrus in Strathmore, Calif., where he wears several hats in the company’s farming and packing businesses. The smallish farm—it grows about 160 acres of citrus—is in a period of transition that reflects the marketing trends outlined above by Kahn. The farm has 20 acres of Cara Caras, and it also processes the fruit of several growers at its packing facility, and the variety is a big hit.

Becuase of the popularity of the Cara Cara, the owners of the farm—which still had a lot of acreage in Valencia oranges, lemons and Mineola tangelos—knew that there was a new era dawning. Growers Steen has been packing for have been getting their best prices for the pink-fleshed fruit. Since then, they have made a point of following the seedless, easy-peel and sweetness path of light.

Mandarins are really starting to take the market by storm, Kahn says, because they best embody all of those trends. Called the “zipper-skinned fruit,” mandarins are a large and diverse group that come in a range of shapes and have skin that separates from the flesh at maturity and makes them easier to peel than oranges. They are popular for several reasons, including sweetness (though some are less so) and a small size that makes an excellent snack package. They are popular with growers because the trees are smaller than orange trees and can be more easily picked. They do, however, require more careful pruning.

Photo courtesy of the California Agricultural Leadership Program.
Tracy Kahn, with the Citrus Variety Collection at University of California-Riverside, says the future for citrus is in taste, seedlessness, easy peeling and small size.
New citrus varieties gain traction for several reasons. The Cara Cara navel orange has unique pink flesh and extra lycopene, an antioxidant.
Specialty produce houses like Frieda’s, Inc. in California love to get in new citrus varieties, which are often first shipped to alternative retailers such as farmers’ markets.

“The different mandarin varieties have different seasons,” Kahn says, with some maturing as early as October and some in March. The possibility of an extended harvest, as well as commercial appeal, have made mandarins a popular planting in recent years. Originating in Indochina and becoming commercial in North Africa, and including many subsequent crosses, mutations and hybrids, this grouping also technically includes the tangerines and tangelos. Seedlessness is a big selling point, but some of the most popular mandarins become seedy when cross-pollinated with other citrus, and this has become controversial in areas like the Central Valley, where they are grown near almond groves that require large numbers of bees.

Which brings us to the clementines. Clementine mandarin varieties are thought to be similar to the Canton mandarin of China, but they were given their name in honor of Brother Clement, who planted a seedling tree in the garden of an orphanage near Oran, Algeria. The first clementines were brought to the United States in the early 20th century.

Kahn says this group of varieties took off with growers primarily because there was an established market in Europe and, thus, ready export potential as well as a domestic market. There are many selections or varieties of clementine that are similar but differ slightly in characteristics such as timing of maturity. The most commonly grown variety in California is Clemenules, commonly called Nules. There are still fewer farms growing these than are growing navel oranges, but some large farms contribute significant acreages.

Clementines occupy an early-season role in harvest and marketing, coming after or overlapping with Satsuma mandarins and before the tangors, such as the late-season W. Murcott Afourer. Kahn says the hottest new mandarin variety, and an example of where the market is headed, is the Tango. She means it’s hot for growers, because consumers have not tasted it yet. It was released in 2006, and the first commercial trees were planted in the spring of 2007.

“Growers are very excited about this variety, and the original demand for budwood to propagate trees was tremendous,” Kahn says of Tango, which is an irradiated W. Murcott Afourer mutation that was developed at the UC Riverside Citrus Scion Breeding Program. These have the deep orange color and smooth skin of the already popular W. Murcott Afourer (which was only brought to California in 1985), one of the mainstays of the existing mandarin market, but Tango fruit is seedless, or very low-seeded, under all conditions. This separates it from the clementine and W. Murcott fruit.

“I think they think this will have a major impact on the industry,” Kahn says. One reason is, of course, the seedlessness. When this variety is planted near other citrus, in the presence of bees, cross-pollination does not result in seediness. The other major attraction is that it is a late variety, fitting in nicely after the clementines are finished. Because the fruit looks very much like clementine fruit, the Tango will basically allow a season extension for that successful market. In Riverside tests, for example, the crop comes off in late January, but holds well on the tree until April.

Steen verifies this assessment. His family has 20 acres of Tango planted, and he says that the buzz all around the industry is of the number of trees going in. Nobody knows the total acreage, but it’s huge and depends on a large back order of nursery trees. He says the attraction for him is that the variety allows Golden Valley to diversify and enter the “easy-peeler” mandarin marketplace. He couldn’t plant clementines, because he didn’t have isolated acreage that would allow him to harvest seedless fruit.

“The number of trees that have been ordered is just staggering,” Steen says of Tango. This without any hope of seeing significant fruit for a couple of years. Part of the attraction is that large farms, which have been using W. Murcott Afourer as their clementine, can switch to Tango and avoid the controversy over cross-pollination. He had a recent meeting with 10 growers from his area, and seven of them were planting Tango trees.

This, of course, begs the question whether there might be an eventual glut of the Tango fruit. Steen says that is a worry, but on the positive side, the mandarin is no longer a sideline oddity that can easily be overplanted. “It’s becoming more commodity-like,” he says, and it also has huge export potential once the domestic market is filled. He has become such a proponent of new varieties, however, that he is looking even beyond the Tango.

“What I’m looking for next is a new low-seeded Daisy selection,” he says of a UC Riverside experimental cultivar that seems well adapted to hotter regions, but is aligned for a pre-Christmas harvest. “It hasn’t been released yet.”

In short, from the grower’s perspective, there is a search for diversification as well as market trend. Golden Valley also has, or is planting, late-season navels and Shasta Gold mandarins, which are a large, orange-colored hybrid that gives the packinghouse another offering.

Indeed, Kahn says, there are several new mandarin varieties in the wings that could continue these trends. The Gold Nugget, for example, is another UC Riverside variety that is extremely sweet and late-season. With a March harvest, and cold storage prolonging its shelf life, this variety could carry the mandarin market almost to summer.

Karen Caplan, president of Frieda’s, Inc., one of the nation’s leading distributors of specialty produce, says the citrus market is a dynamic market right now. In fact, citrus, with the advent of the clementines and other new varieties, is becoming like other fruits and vegetables. Consumers are asking for varieties by name, the way they do for lettuce or apples.

“All of a sudden, things shifted to a varietal market,” Caplan says. Now it is common, for example, for shoppers to ask for a Cara Cara navel by name, because they have been alerted to the particular color and flavor of the fruit. Her company, which has introduced many new products such as kiwi fruit and spaghetti squash to the American marketplace, specializes in such innovations and welcomes them.

Caplan cautions that consumers will be finding new varieties at first through alternative sources such as farmers’ markets, and they are willing to pay more for highly desirable fruit if it tastes fresh. Already, she has heard, some grocers are taking traditional navel oranges off their shelves in favor of newer citrus varieties.

“You can never rest on your laurels” if you are a grower, she says, because the market can desert you if you have unpopular varieties planted. On the other hand, these new fruits don’t take off immediately in the marketplace. It may take years after the first plantings for a new variety to become popular with shoppers.

Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif.